Highlighted passages in Wallace's Pale King

Fragments of fragments: 

To me, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ and ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way… I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.

The reason for this public ignorance is not secrecy. The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this feature. 
Consider, from the Service’s perspective, the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex. The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help to insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting.

…what we do here puts us in a position to see civic attitudes close up, since there’s nothing more concrete than a tax payment, which is after all your money, whereas the obligations and projected returns on the payments are abstract, at the abstract level of the whole nation and its government and the common weal. So attitudes about paying taxes seem like one of the places where a man’s civic sense gets revealed in the starkest sorts of terms.

Lane Dean summoned all his will and bore down and did three returns in a row, and began imagining different high places to jump off of. He felt in a position to say he knew now that hell had nothing to do with fires or troops. Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connected to nothing he’d ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never went down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and just leave the man there to his mind’s own devices.

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, picayune, meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unbearable… 
It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.

A ghost:
'They don’t ever say it, though. Have you noticed? They talk around it. It’s too manifest. It would be as if saying I see so-and-so with my eye. What would be the point? Yes but now that you’re getting a taste, consider it, the word. Word appears suddenly in 1766. No known etymology… In fact the first three appearances of 'bore' in English conjoin with the adjective French, that French bore, that boring Frenchman, yes? They of course had malaise, ennui… See La Rouchefoucauld’s or the Marquise du Deffand’s well-known letters to Horace Walpole, specifically I believe Letter 96. This means a good five hundred years of no word for it you see, yes? No word for the so-called daemon meridianus of the hermits of third-century Egypt, when their prayers were stultified by pointlessness and tedium and a longing for violent death… 
And then suddenly up it pops. Bore. Noun and verb, participle as adjective, whole nine yards. Origin unknown, really. We do not know. Nothing on it in Johnson… Philologists say it was a neologism – And just at the time of industry’s rise, too, yes? Of the mass man, the automated turbine and drill bit and bore, yes? Forget Friedkin, have you seen Metropolis? 
... Someone else had also called it soul murdering. Which now you will too, yes?'  

A head of the IRS:
“…the moment in the sixties when rebellion against conformity became fashionable, a pose, a way to look cool to the others in your generation you wanted to impress and get accepted by. The minute it became not just an attitude but a fashionable one, that’s when the corporations and their advertisers can step in and start reinforcing it and seducing people into buying things…” 
“But wait. The sixties rebellion in lots of ways opposed the corporation and the military-industrial complex. I mean is there any more total symbol of conformity than the corporation? Assembly lines and punching the clock and climbing the ladder to the corner office?”
“But we’re not talking about the interior reality of the corporation. We’re talking about the face and voice the advertisers start using in the late sixties. It starts talking about the customer’s psyche being in bondage to conformity and the way to break out the conformity is not to do certain things but to buy certain things. You make buying a certain brand of clothes or pop or car into a gesture of the same level of ideological significance as wearing a beard or protesting the war."

The 'author':
There was something about the silent, motionless intensity with which everyone was studying the tax-related documents before them that frightened and thrilled me. The scene was such that you just knew that if you were to open the door ten, twenty or forty minutes later, it would look and sound just the same... 
In real life, of course, concentrated deskwork doesn’t go this way. The way hard deskwork really goes is in jagged little fits and starts, brief intervals of concentration alternated with trips to the men’s room, the drinking fountain, the vending machine, constant visits to the pencil sharpener, phone calls you suddenly feel are imperative to make, rapt intervals of seeing what kinds of shapes you bend a paperclip into, &c. This is because sitting still and concentrating on just one task for an extended length of time is, as a practical matter, impossible. If you said, ‘I spent the whole night in the library, working on a sociology paper’, you really meant that you’d spent between two and three hours working on it and the rest fidgeting and sharpening and organising pencils and doing skin-checks in the mirror and wandering around the stacks opening volumes at random and reading about, say, Durkheim’s theories of suicide. 
As a child, I think I’d understood the word concentrate literally and viewed my problems with sustained concentration as evidence that I was an unusually dilute or disorganised form of human being.

An accountancy lecturer:
Before you leave here to resume that crude approximation of a human life you have heretofore called life, I will undertake to inform you of certain truths… in that festive interval before the last push of CPA examination study, you will hesitate, you will feel dread and doubt. You will feel dread at your hometown chums’ sallies about accountancy as the career before you, you will read the approval in your parents’ smiles as approval of your surrender – oh, I have been there, gentlemen; I know every cobble in the road you are walking. To begin, in that literally dreadful interval of looking down before the leap outward, to hear dolorous forecasts as to the sheer drudgery of the profession you are choosing, the lack of excitement or chance to shine on the athletic fields or ballroom floors of life heretofore… 
To experience commitment as the loss of options, a type of death, the death of childhood’s limitless possibility, the flattery of choice without duress – this will happen, mark me. The first of many deaths. Hesitation is natural. Doubt is natural… 
I wish to inform you that the accounting profession to which you aspire is, in fact, heroic. Exacting? Prosaic? Banausic to the point of drudgery? Sometimes. Often tedious? Perhaps. But brave? Worthy? Fitting, sweet? Romantic? Chivalric? Heroic? Gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism. The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all – all designed to excite and gratify an audience. An audience. Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality: there is no audience. No one to see you. Do you understand? Actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one is interested… 
…To give oneself to the care of others’ money – this is effacement, perdurance, sacrifice, honor, doughtiness, valor. Hear this or not, as you will. Learn it now, or later – the world has time. Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui – these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real. 
…Gentlemen, you are called to account.

The idea that people feel just one basic emotion at a time is a further contrivance of memoirs.

I don’t think my father loved his job with the city, but on the other hand, I’m not sure he ever asked himself major questions like ‘Do I like my job? Is this really what I want to spend my life doing? … He had a family to support, this was his job, he got up every day and did it, end of story, everything else is just self-indulgent nonsense. That may actually have been the lifetime sum-total of his thinking on the matter. He essentially said ‘Whatever’ to his lot in life, but obviously in a very different way from the way in which the directionless wastoids of my generation said ‘Whatever.’

It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss at every atom.

How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.


Some modern or maybe postmodern pieties

'Yo Mama Pieta' (1996) by Renée Cox

...one knows a piety from a principle because even those who oppose a piety
have to pretend to honour its core point.

Adam Gopnik

...one way you know that something is an institution is that you don’t have to give reasons for it. Getting a college degree, like getting married, is what people do.

John Emerson

What does everyone have to like? (I'll qualify that: in the West, if you're educated, what do you have to like?) I suppose this is close to asking what the spirit of the age is. For example and by definition, most people don't like the things hipsters like. What things do even hipsters fail to react against?

For instance, two people saying they don't like things you're supposed to: Nassim Taleb refuses to read the news, for aesthetic and epistemic reasons; Pierre Bayard says that one can and should talk about books one hasn't read. Good intellectuals aren't supposed to talk like this.

The things listed below aren't all bad, just mysteriously universal or rarely questioned. I also wanted things independent of the old political division and new cultural ones. So I haven't included Gopnik's example (gay marriage) despite it having all the hallmarks of a piety – e.g. finding support even among formative enemies, having some confusing opponents** we could report on, gawkily.


  1. Following the news.

    The element of truth: It's important to try to understand stuff. People act badly in the absence of oversight; the powerful act even worse.

    The errors enforced: 'News is a good way of understanding the world'; 'a daily newspaper is a representative sample of all events'; 'news is a guide to what's really (causally) important in the world'; 'newsreading is a necessary condition of showing concern for the world'.

    How widespread? Trying to find evidence for any of the pieties is annoying: after all, these just are things that slip past critical notice. 60% of UK adults are on the stuff daily. The last Eurobarometer found 87% of people watching TV every day, and 89% of them watching the TV news, so let's fudge this as 80%. (They may well be inflating their attentiveness, but this lip service serves my point and so is not actually statistical bias at all.)

    What's the objection? The state of the media as it is (and has always been): sensationalist, rushed, oversimplified, unscientific unaccountable. Most people know that you shouldn't believe the likes of the National Inquirer. But one study found that 80% of 'quality' British journalism has been a false journalism, copied and pasted from PR sources. Even stories that aren't compromised by their propaganda origins are subject to irrational pressures, oversimplification to false balance to statistical illiteracy. Unanalysed reporting is plausibly worse than no information.

    La resistance:
    • Nick Davies, the whistleblower in the UK media.
    • Nassim Taleb.
    • Aaron Swartz.
    • Michael Crichton.
    • Charlie Stross
    • Ozy Frantz.
    • Aaron Gertler.
    • Robin Hanson gives a skewering view, as always: "... if you care less about signaling intelligence and connectedness, and more about understanding, then consider reading textbooks, review articles, and other expert summaries instead of news."
    • The daily papers talk of everything except the everyday. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask."
      - Georges Perec

    We might reserve the word 'journalism' for the real, objective kind of loud third-party investigation. We definitely need journalism in this sense, and we probably need a mass media to push it, if only to scare powerful groups into behaving well. That would make my abstention free-riding, and that is a bad thing to do. But real, long-form, book-grade investigative journalism is rare, and being edged out by clickbait, even without mass disconnection.


  2. International travel...

    Even quite level-headed people have a hyper-inflated view of the intellectual and spiritual benefits of travelling. It is hard to find anyone any more than grumpy about a particular trip, or snobby about the way others travel. The hype of going places is not at all new. But the modern practice is quite different: mass, international, touristic; holidays as the organising fact of your year. The safest conversational topic outside of the weather.

    The element of truth: 'Cause there's a million ways to be, you know that there are, doo doo doo doo-doo. I suppose compulsive xenophobes are the only really principled anti-travellers.

    The errors enforced: The possibility of fleeing yourself. Flat experience taken as sufficient for understanding. When coupled to poverty tourism, the superior virtue of the oppressed.

    How widespread? 78% of rich-world people plan to this year (p.20 here). 91% of Britons polled by Ipsos.

    La resistance:
    • This travel writer is annoyed at people exaggerating the significance of their own travel, which is all I suppose I am annoyed at.
    • Martha Gellhorn is a funny example, since she spent her whole life travelling. But with open eyes: "One needs Equanil here too, not just in our white urban civilisation; tranquilisers against impatience, against the hysteria induced by heat, and the disgust at dirt...
    • Not really this.

    • I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence... But he who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself... He carries ruins to ruins. Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from...

      Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.

    • – R.W. Emerson

  3. ...while professing to be environmentalist

    Now see here.

    La resistance:
    • Couldn't find anyone lucid on the topic. 'Responsible' travel and 'green' travel bring up little of substance. The green professionals seem to be the worst, possibly because of their inflated idea of their advocacy's impact.

  4. ****************************************************************************

  5. The internet

    Because it contains a good and growing representation of the world entire, this is a hard thing to be properly against. (You might manage it by being depressed to fuck, or anti-technology in general. But that degree of Luddism probably entails being against most social progress.) So I have to rename this 'technological utopianism' if it is to have any real bite. (Though note this research programme.)

    The element of truth: Knowledge, obvs. And the self-creation it enables is probably good for all kinds of people.

    The error enforced: That the uses of abstractions on network protocols are inevitably progressive. That politics has changed fundamentally.

    La resistance:
    • The primitivists, who are usually wrong.
    • Evgeny Morozov, who is against technological hype
    • Similarly Vint Cerf.
    • Nicholas Carr, who is probably not right.

  6. ****************************************************************************

  7. 'Nature'

    The cult of travel usually goes along with a slack-jawed endorsement of the natural world.

    The element of truth: The beauty, if you don't look too closely. There is a level of ugliness which only human structures and actions demonstrate.

    The error enforced: Modernity as a bad deal. That 'natural' means good, when in fact a huge amount of the good things in the world are in direct opposition to natural teleoi. That GM (etc.) is essentially hazardous or wrong.

    La resistance:

  8. ****************************************************************************

  9. Hegemonic higher education.

    The element of truth: Ideas are important. Four years of relative freedom at the beginning of adulthood is fantastic. There's a lot more to life than economics. It will be hard to replicate the deep internationalism and the universal parental and governmental approval in alternative spaces. Research and cultural transmission are important and gain greatly from local networking.

    The error enforced: That going to university has inherent value (rather than the skill, knowledge, perspective which unreliably attend students' attendance). That this inherent value justifies giant personal debt and diversion of public spending (from, e.g. the economic emancipation of all). That it's university that provides an intellectual or spiritual boost, rather than exposure to ideas, rigour, and peer discussion - each of which are tending towards being free, outwith the academy. That institutional learning is best learning. That you need credentials to be credible.

    The piety is the driver of disastrous trends: the one by which more jobs arbitarily require more degrees; the one where a degree is a hollow class marker. These overvaluations are scuppering some people's lives.

    La resistance:
    • Scott Alexander
    • Bryan Caplan Caplan Caplan Caplan (...)
    • Taleb again.
    • Peter Thiel.
    • Left critics are mostly only against the brute vocational and corporate side of universities - not the core piety of inherent value. An exception is the wonderful John Emerson.
    • 'The Last Psychiatrist', a lurid and brutal writer.
    • oh do go on.
    • This scene in Good Will Hunting is the only mainstream statement of the nonspecialness of university:
      Will: See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you're gonna start doin' some thinkin' 
      on your own and you're going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one,
      don't do that, and two, you dropped 150 grand on a fuckin' education you could have got for a dollar fifty
      in late charges at the public library!

  10. ****************************************************************************

  11. Hating high finance.

    The element of truth: Banking has always been dangerous, and difficult to reconcile with justice. (Piety can pile on top of truths as well as falsehoods.)

    La resistance:
    • Almost everyone with lots of capital.
    • Economists, who are not mostly dishonest.
    • The effective altruists (but only in deed). A greater question than finance's marginal harm, is whether working in finance does more harm than xx thousand pounds of anti-famine donations per year is good. The piety would have you think so, but to me it is supremely unlikely.

  12. ****************************************************************************

  13. Reading, the moral and spiritual necessity of.

    The sharpest tooth in the bunch, for me. The news piety is a special case of this, I suppose. And half the internet one, too. How often do you feel insecure about having not read a Portentous Classic? How often do you lie about having read them?

    The element of truth: Reading is awesome. A handful of as-yet-unfalsified studies find an increase in empathy from reading.

    The error enforced: That reading anything will do: the practice over the matter. That it offers unique benefits, when many people just don't need the reminder to have perspective or empathy or whatnot.

    La resistance: Only satirical attacks on reading seem to be possible:
    • Alain de Botton hopes that his children don't have to read, because reading is a "response to anxiety", and thus a bad sign.
    • Me dissembling.
    • Mikita Brottman likens it to masturbation and challenges the edification side, but then snaggle-pusses sideways saying that both are good 'self-explorations' anyway. (Here, here, here.)
    • Steven Johnson trying to make videogames look good.
    • Bayard's happy satire. But even his mouthpiece fails to criticise reading properly:
      The books we love offer a sketch of a whole universe that we secretly inhabit, and in which we desire the other person to assume a role.

      One of the conditions of happy romantic compatibility is, if not to have read the same books, to have read at least some books in common with the other person—which means, moreover, to have non-read the same books. From the beginning of the relationship, then, it is crucial to show that we can match the expectations of our beloved by making him or her sense the proximity of our inner libraries.

(I myself am pious about the last two, failing to really even hypothetically attack them.)


* 'Things one loses one's job over opposing' are far heavier than the lifestyle features considered herein. 'Heresy' might not be an excessive alternative term for those. Though that leaves us without our term for 'Things some others will kill you for saying '.

** Who protest the 'assimilation' of queer people, by which they seem to mean queer people having options.