Overweening Generalist

Sunday, February 2, 2014

"Stamp Out Sizeism": On the Unfortunate Human Outlier and the Rest of Us

I just looked in to see who won Unistat's Big Gladiatorial Game of the Year - a secular holiday in Unistat - and was surprised at the result, which was not normal. Not even close. I had seen during the two weeks of festivities hyping the game that it was "the best offense versus the best defense," and Experts usually said it was a toss-up; it would be a good, close game. This morning I heard on the radio while showering that the great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of a heroin overdose, so I checked the Huffington Post when I got out but their overblown headline was about the Super Bowl: "A Matchup For the Ages" or something like that. Yea, yea...maybe. One team beat the other team 43-8.

A terrible game. Not within any Expert's Bell Curve-y prognostications.

Robert Anton Wilson's fictional character "Markoff Chaney" features prominently in his novels, Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy and his counterculture "underground" classic, Illuminatus!, co-written with his friend Robert Shea. In a 1996 interview Wilson said that Chaney was about 99% his creation, and in an earlier interview he explained that Chaney was "at war with the concept of the normal." 

                                actor David Rappaport, who played Chaney
                                in the 10-hour, staged version of

"Mr. Chaney, you see, was a midget, but he was no relative of the famous Chaneys of Hollywood. People did keep making jokes about that. It was bad enough to be, by the standards of the stupid gigantic and stupid majority, a freak; how much worse to be so named as to remind those big oversized clods of cinema's two most-famous portrayers of monstro-freaks. By the time the midget was fifteen, he had built up a detestation for ordinary mankind that dwarfed (he hated the word) the relative misanthropies of Paul of Tarsus, Clement of Alexandria, Swift of Dublin." - The Universe Next Door, found on p.35 of the SCT, omnibus edition. 

Chaney wanted revenge on the "normal" sized people. He was paranoid (wouldn't you be?), and very intelligent, and had a brilliant if devious creative streak that had him constantly pulling pranks on the Normals. Wilson fans love Chaney's signs and memos, which are numerous throughout RAW's work. Being adept at electronics, Chaney fixed the street lights so that when they turned red they read WALK, when green they flashed DON'T WALK. He made out fake stationery headings for fake organizations, wrote puzzling messages on public restroom walls, and tried to meddle in any scientist's research which attempted to measure the "normal." 

Some Chaney graffiti:
"Off the Landlords"
"Help Prevent Von Neumann's Catastrophe!"
"Arm the Unemployed"
"For a good blow job call 555-1717 and ask for Father James Flanagan"
"Free Our Four-Legged Brothers and Sisters"
"Entropy Requires No Maintenance"
"Stamp Out Sizeism"

What can the amateur psychoanalyst make of the person behind such messages? The graffiti artist seems to me to be a militant Leftist (landlord and unemployed riffs); scientifically literate (entropy and Von Neumann), and has a beef with the Roman Catholic Church. (What could the line about "sizeism" mean?)

What are the precursors to Markoff Chaney? 

Wilson says the character was inspired by his studies of mathematical information theory in which the Markov Chain plays a large part as a function. He thought a character with that name might be some sort of monster, like the characters played by Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr. in Hollywood horror films. 

When I first read Wilson's books Chaney reminded me of Tyl Eulenspiegel an impudent trickster in European folklore, who constantly pranks and may be traced to an actual historical highway robber from 1339, but who knows? The character seems archetypal anyway. 

The Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek's most famous novel, The Good Soldier Schweik, also seemed like a worldwide cultural precursor to Markoff Chaney. From the Introduction to a novel On the Edge of Reason, by the early 20th century Croatian master Miroslav Krleza, Jeremy Catto writes, "The individual's struggle against the madness of authority was a theme of the dying Hapsburg Empire. For Kafka, it had been played out in a nightmare of red tape, where monsters in morning coats or official uniforms trapped their prey in a tangle of paper. Jaroslav Hasek in a lighter mood would confront the same unreasoning authority with his comic hero Schweik, who would dodge the demands with a mad logic of his own. Release and escape from dominance inspired the authentically Viennese science of psychology in the hands of Sigmund Freud." (p.9)

A generalized approach along the lines of Hasek's character seems to have influenced a basic flavor of many novels in English in the second half of the 20th century, black comedies in which the Individual is caught in a web of Bureaucratic SNAFU and absurdity, in which a counter-absurdity seems the only "logical" response. How many of you thought of Catch-22 immediately after reading about Schweik?

[In Unistat, one wonders about the deeper motives of Ray Palmer...After an accident, he was left a four-foot tall hunchback who may have had quite an outsized influence on our perceptions of aliens from another planet visiting us, UFOs, etc. He was a HUGE influence on science fiction.]

Jack Napier is a real-life prankster who alters billboards in a way similar to Markoff Chaney's pranks. But Napier says he was influenced by another science fiction writer, John Brunner, in Brunner's novel Stand on Zanzibar. Says Napier: "It featured a character who, whenever he spotted an officialese sign, would change it to say something absurd, like, 'While in the bathroom, please keep your left hand inside your pants pocket - The Management.'" (Pranks! vol 2, p.97) 

RAW's Chaney also signed some of his absurd signs as being from "The Management," but instead he abbreviated it to "The Mgt," which RAW said could also mean "The Midget." (Many RAWphiles write nutty things to each other, signing off as "The Mgt.")

In the 19th century, the mathematics of Karl Friedrich Gauss - one of the truly great mathematicians ever - seems to have been misused. Gauss invented the Bell Curve to illustrate a theoretical point about statistics. Some took the Bell Curve as a way to make claims about the structure of reality. In the famous book A Mathematician's Apology, G.H. Hardy writes:

"The 'real' mathematics of the 'real' mathematicians, the mathematics of Fermat and Euler and Gauss and Abel and Riemann, is almost wholly 'useless' (and this is as true of 'applied' as of 'pure' mathematics)." But Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874), a perhaps overly enthusiastic leveler who wrote an opera and poetry, was a mathematician and a sociologist/criminologist - he was a wild polymath-generalist, really! -  thought he had found Bell Curves everywhere, and that they did map to "reality" and this meant he could make world-shaking grandiose claims about "normality" or "the average" which was "good." Quetelet even invented (he would probably say he "discovered" l'homme moyen, or "the average man." The average was normal and was harmonic and good; those Damned Things that were outliers were obviously the non-normal. In the European 19th century: social unrest everywhere and socialist thinkers galore. If there was an average weight, height, baby birth size, chest width...there should be an average in wealth. Those found outside the Bell Curve of income and wealth...not normal. Not good. There are lies, damned lies, and statistics, and if we want to make normative claims about fairness - and we do - we will use whatever we have. Does it mean that our numbers constantly reduce down to some Pythagorean golden mean-like idea of Justice? Can we ground our claims there? It seems many of us will. 

Markoff Chaney's bete noir in non-fiction/human history is Quetelet and his brood of followers. 

What is taken for "knowledge" is always contestable. Markoff Chaney is right! Stamp out sizeism! There are no normal sunsets! No one is "average" looking. That's math not "reality"! We have opinions and ideas about justice, morality, and beauty. Let me put one of my own forth: It's indecent to have 85 people who have as much money as 3.5 billion of the world's population. Why? Well...look at my stat! (And aye: look at the suffering. Is this who we are?) 

I consider the second inchoate "argument" my more legitimate claim and would "ground" my moral argument there, not on a Platonic idea of Justice derived from Bell Curves. I'd argue from basic human dignity and a problem with a Stark Cold Invisible Mangled Hand in capitalism.

What about those smaller of stature? What about their perception of the world? The world looks different if you're three and a half feet tall, and you get in an elevator: everything looks like a crotch. Conversely, tall people, in study after study, have been shown to be more content with their lives, they go further in their educations, make more money, have better jobs, and in general: they're socially dominant. And this might have people who are shorter feeling...paranoid? Chaney sure was. A recent study had women who reported feeling paranoid at some point during the past 30 days experience a Virtual Reality simulation of riding in the London Underground. The women went through the simulation twice, but the second time the VR people tweaked the perceptions of the women, making them virtually ten inches shorter. The women didn't notice this, but did report more feelings of inferiority and paranoia when they were on the shorter "rides" in VR.

Speaking of the London Underground, prankish signs, and Markoff Chaney, see THESE.


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. I enjoyed yesterday's Super Bowl. I kept thinking about Peyton Manning and his capabilities. Up until nearly the end of the game I kept thinking,"I think he can. I think he can." From a Hollywood perspective, the greater the Seattle lead, the greater the possible glory for the comeback.

Yesterday also marked the day James Stephens chose for his birthday. (An orphan, he knew neither his birthday nor his birth name. He chose the name James Stephens after the Fenian leader. He chose February 2 for his birthday because of Candlemas.) One Joycean webpage had a photo of JJ & S (James Joyce and Stephens). I'd forgotten how short Stephens looked next to Joyce.

Eric Wagner said...

David Thomson on Philip Seymour Hoffman: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116447/philip-seymour-hoffman-dead-46

michael said...

The Denver Post thinks the team had "stagefright" and then began to panic when things started to get out of hand, and it got worse from there.

How hilarious: not one Expert thought anything like this would happen. Some picked Denver, but it was always going to be close because they're such a good matchup. That's what actuated me to riff on Bell Curves and "the average" and our thinking/assumptions...which led me to Markoff Chaney.

It's a bit of a slightly incoherent ramble-piece, innit? Off the cuff, sources scrambled for. Not sure if it coheres?

I don't think I've seen the Stephens/JJ pic, although I bet it's in James Joyce A-Z.

Thanks for the Thomson link. I read/watched all the articles with clips that Salon and Slate had on PSH yesterday.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I've come to really dislike the NFL, so I was delighted that the much-hyped championship game was kind of a disgrace and a farce. I hope the next few Super Bowls are that way, too.

One of the good things about football, though, is the way the game continually underscores how little we can predict about what will happen. There was no way, for example, that Oklahoma should have pounded Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. When you compared the record of the two teams in the regular season, it was "obvious" that Bama would blow out the Sooners.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add that there was at one person who said the Seahawks would thump the Broncos. Can't remember his name but he was a guest on the Colin Cowherd show this past week. A number of NFL analyst said the Seahawks had a better roster top to bottom, but almost all thought Manning would neutralize any edge they have.

Oh and roll tide :(

michael said...

@ Tom Jackson:

In the past year I've noted an increased awareness that the NFL is tax-exempt and that this seems outrageous and must be stopped.

@ Anonymous:

I don't know who the guy was on Cowherd, but the comedic actor and TV personality Joel McHale went on the Keith Olbermann show the Friday night before the game and said the Seahawks would cream the Broncos...because...he's from SEA and a big fan. (Which means nothing. If the Broncos had won 62-3 the media would dig out someone who said DEN would win "by, like 50 points.")

Playing the same game: the San Francisco Bay Area will be hit with a major earthquake sometime between March 15, 2014, and June 23rd, 2014. You heard it here first!

Anonymous said...

I hear you.

The guy's name is Jason Whitlock.