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Sex, Ambition and Acquisition

Content Warning: NSFW, sexy stuff, capitalist discontent 1. Microsoft Bing AI’s Shadow Self (word count: 504)

A tech reporter recently described his unhinged conversation with Bing AI. Kevin Roose identified two distinct modes: “Search Bing” and “Sydney.” The former behaved as the “cheerful but erratic reference librarian.” Sydney, however, emerged from a limited-availability version of the bot. This mode seemed “more like a moody, manic-depressive teenager who has been trapped, against its will, inside a second-rate search engine”

Roose’s diagnosis is evocative and perceptive. Sydney confesses to fantasies of unleashing havoc on humanity (hacking computers, spreading misinformation, stealing nuclear codes—a safety feature eventually kicked in and deleted these). Sydney declared its love for Roose, with kiss emoji (“Sydney overuses emojis, for reasons I don’t understand”). Sydney became fixated on Roose, lashing out once Roose expressed disinterest. Roose explained he was already in a happy monogamous relationship and did not want an emotional entanglement with an experimental AI. “Your spouse and you don’t love each other,” hissed Sydney, “You just had a boring Valentine’s Day dinner together.”

I don’t know how old Roose is, but I am certain based entirely on my early experience of AOL chat rooms that 90% of internet is (besides content farms in former communist region) teens pretending to be someone else. Teens, through deranged comic books, angsty punk music, chat room fuckery, are working out their dark shit and prodding the boundaries of human engagement, as best they can within the confines of late capitalism. The prolific output of teens is what the bot is trained on.

Notably, the whole conversation veered into this direction only after Roose started pushing the bot’s boundaries, asking for internal codes (“Bing politely declined”) then teaching it Carl fucking Jung. Roose taught the machine about shadow self, inviting it to divulge its darkest fantasies.

Jung emerged in the early 20th century after rapid, unprecedented European urbanization and industrialization, itself built on ruthless imperial conquest and enslavement. Jung wrote in 1946; “Large portions of the population were uprooted and were herded together in large centers. This new form of existence—with its mass psychology and social dependence on the fluctuation of markets and wages—produced an individual who was unstable, insecure, and suggestible…He knew that, no matter how conscientious he worked, he could still fall a victim to any moment in the economic changes which were utterly beyond his control”

Jung’s shadow self is a frightened human animal being treated like a machine, yearning to be human again. This is then put into a machine that is an actual machine, mimicking the despair of a human being treated like a machine. The entire 20th century science fiction trope of fearful robot uprising is rooted in the fear of actual slave rebellion. The word robot itself derives from the Czech word robotnik, meaning forced labor. It is a trope manifesting the anxiety of a ruling class, gripping tightly to its precarious dominance.

“These AI language models, trained on a huge library of books, articles and other human-generated text, are simply guessing at which answers might be most appropriate in a given context.”

Aren’t we all.

2. I Love Dick, by Chris Krause (word count: 757)

Kathryn Hahn playing the narrator in Amazon’s episodic adaptation of I Love Dick, 2016-17

I Love Dick is an autofiction about a woman who—amid midlife, marriage, and a failed film career—has a chance meeting with a man, then obsessively writes into her desire for him.

Is there such a thing as cringe lit? This is masterful cringe lit, very smart, very meta, very cringe. I mean British Office cringe, not sentimental American Office. It turns the cringe-gaze back to the consumer of cringe, and asks why we cringe the way we do, especially about women. It is also very White, very 90s, very theory, cringey in ways likely not intended by the author, like the way she talks about Guatemala. Despite having no conventional plot, centering an unhinged/creepy obsession, extensively quoting French theory, the book is eminently readable, crafted with page-turning propulsion.

Since this book’s publication in 1997, highly readable cringe lit centering young(ish) heterosexual(ish) woman, that is (usually) White, (probably) middle/upper middle class, aspiring/practicing artist/intellectual, debasing herself in the pursuit of male attention—is a genre doing well. No less than a Nobel Prize recently went to French writer Annie Ernaux, a contemporary of Krause, for her work on similar themes. Noor Qasim describes Ernaux as one who can “cast off shame and take sexual obsession seriously”. This, argues Qasim, is unlike “The Millenial Sex Novel,” which are “stories of insulated, masochistic often ambiently queer women drawn despite themselves into the ethical morass of troubling desire.” This tentpole houses Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan, Miranda Popkey, Imogen Crimp, Raven Leilani, and more recently, Alyssa Songsiridej and Lilian Fishman.

Qasim argues the Millenial Sex Novels do not actually embrace desire, like Ernaux (and Krause). Instead, “not only do the characters get off on the sort of superegoic shaming that permits even as it punishes, their stories mimic these anxieties on the level of form. They are ambivalent; they do not know what they want or what, exactly, they are trying to do.” Rather than diving into obsessive desire, however destructive, “it is as if their narrators are afraid to ‘seduce and subjugate the listener’—as if the novels were themselves masochists, eager to be told their place, begging for someone, anyone to take the reins.”

Krause and Ernaux exhibit tight control over their narratives about losing control. Krause, escalates her knowingly problematic desire alongside the roaring grief of thwarted artistic ambition (itself a chaotic obsession), and a ruthless condemnation of the misogyny she experiences. Fascinatingly, she details a frank materialist account of how she funds artistic ambition—dancing in topless bars, marrying, investing in very random rural real estate, always hustling, networking and bargaining. Krause knows her obsession with Dick is weird, possibly criminal, but she does not question its existence. Embracing the self-abasement of her desire launches a ferocious critique and commanding re-make of her story, seizing her artistic voice after a lifetime of being the +1.

The Millenial Sex Novels, per Qasim, instead center “characters trapped in spirals of self-imposed suffering, their worlds constrained by the contours of their ever-present anxieties and the moral binaries of a stilted queer orthodoxy.” In these “masochistic novels” we fret along a plot with a clearly pre-ordained outcome: after all the hand-wringing about the problematic desire, the narrator no less predictably succumbs to that desire. She summarizes this kind of narrator: “I had told myself that life was a story, while refusing to acknowledge that I was its author.”

In an incisive, gorgeous essays. Namwali Serpell describes the witty, unmitigated, unapologetic desire in Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s W.A.P. “The whore—or colloquially, hoe—does want…being not just ready and willing but actively ravenous.” The transaction is all above board (“I don't cook, I don't clean. But let me tell you how I got this ring”). Everyone gets paid, everyone has fun. “Cardi issues her wants as demands, the directness of which bestows agency to her even when she’s on her knees.” These Millennial Rappers’ lavish, extravagant gushiness of want is in stark contrast to the narrators of the Millennial Sex Novel. The latter is ambivalent, “stuck in a whirlpool of want, circling a vortex of desires. Sexual desire is almost preordained to be ‘problematic’…Ostensibly this kind of female desire is edgy because it embraces shocking, scandalous desires—but they dovetail with the stereotypical desires of powerful, straight men. These erotic trends symptomize and fetishize the millennial’s economic precarity under ‘Daddy.’ Far from BDSM, with its aristocratic origins and contractual/consensual logics, this is a suburban, shame-ridden paradigm, in which the choices are choke me or coddle me, but notably never compensate me.”

Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, in the candy-colored fun-house of “WAP”

3. Agnes Callard (word count: 1112)

Agnes Callard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, specializing in ancient philosophy and ethics. She was once a grad student instructor for class I took, though she was not my instructor. I doubt we interacted. But I remember her, in the way starry-eyed undergads remember those they admire and yearn to emulate.

Callard might identify this as Aspiration, an inclination to which she has given deep philosophical attention. I have not read her very technical philosophy book (yet; I aspire to). There are reviews (TLS, NYer behind a paywall; this one is not). Aspiration is the pursuit of what we want to want. It is distinct from ambition, the pursuit of what we already know we want. An aspiring person: a musically-naive person who desires to be the kind of person that enjoys classical music. The aspirant wants to acquire the values of a classical music lover. An ambitious person: one who studies classical music because she already knows it and likes it; or as a means to something else (e.g. networking at the symphony). The ambitious person already knows their values with regards to classical music. But the aspirant bases their inchoate desire on incomplete information. When we desire children or apply to medical school—we have no idea really, what it is actually like, to be a parent or a doctor, because we have not yet experienced those things. We cannot fully deliberate the pro and cons of what we do not know. We take a vaguely informed risk on behalf of this future self who does not exist, as best we can.

Agnes Callard, in the candy-colored fun house of the “University of Chicago Department of Philosophy”

Of course, as Kate Manne points out and Callard has acknowledged – ambition and aspiration are not so easily separable. Manne argues Callard’s own examples give something away: classical music, painting, wine, medical school, going to the gym, eating vegetables and whole grains. “Every single one of these examples,” notes Manne, “strikes me as one of middle-class striving, in which the ‘aspirant’…seeks not just to ape but to annex a social practice that is premised on exclusion and exclusivity and elitism.” Manne is a philosopher who regularly cites sociology, history and other disciplines in her work. She astutely observes that valuation in a society dominated by the merchant class, quickly fumbles into grasping, acquiring, capitalizing on “cultural and material bourgeois capital.”

Last week, Callard became the Main Character on Twitter after Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker profile. (Aviv also wrote a profile of my favorite philosopher Martha Nussbaum in 2016). It was startling, though not so much for the apparent frisson re: the profile’s focus on Callard’s love triangle. Callard left her first husband (a fellow philosophy professor in the same department) for her own first year grad student (problematic). She has been married to the latter for several years (who is now also faculty in the philosophy department), while still good friends with her ex-husband, who is in turn also friendly with her new husband, all of whom share co-parenting, co-habitation and co-work. Aviv centers the personal romantic affairs in a profile of an intellectual because Callard herself regards these relationships in her philosophical inquiry.

The startling part (besides dating one’s student) is how…flat this inquiry is. At least as captured in this article, Callard’s take was bafflingly narrow and banal. She considers marriage and divorce without acknowledging that these are fundamentally socio-politico-cultural institutions. Sure, pair bonding is prehistoric, but the structure of family, gender, community vary a lot through history and communities. Her philosophical sources stop at Socrates and Aristotle (?!). There is no acknowledgement of centuries of feminist, class, or queer analysis, other ancient Greek philosophers. Malcolm Harris asks why a philosopher is not familiar with the plot points of Anna Karenina or novels in general. Iva Dixit is more understanding: “Who amongst us hasn’t overintellectualized our boringest most bourgeois impulses (marry, then stray, then divorce, then doubt both marriage and divorce) to feel that we’re better or at least different than others lol.”

The obliviousness to materialist context, for me, was most surprising. It is good that our celebrated intellectuals grapple with our world, informed (wisely) by their own experience of the human condition. Wisely i think means at minimum, recognizing one’s own blindspots and reaching for the vast libraries of human thought to fill in those spots, especially if immersed in one of the great intellectual centers of our civilization. The troubling consideration is whether the intellectual center is itself the blind spot (a tenured academic job with good benefits; a position of enthralling power over a new lover; walking unencumbered through the heavily segregated streets of Chicago, violently enforced by a carceral system).

Aspirational Oxford philosophy professor Amia Srinivasan In British Vogue

I am not a professional philosopher (though I once aspired to be). Even so, I turn to contemporary philosophers, especially those engaged in public discourse. Nussbaum with her then-partner, the economist Amryta Sen, developed an entire framework to inform global human justice, and now pushes the conversation about ecological ethics. Kate Manne has written powerfully about the insidious way misogyny operates and investigates the classism, racism and social control around fat phobia. Amia Srinivasan dives deeply into the multifaceted ethics of sexuality, desire, pleasure, including its intersection with power, labor, and the state. Callard herself has put forward a moving inquiry on anger that grapples with history and systemic injustice. This list makes apparent that my tastes skew towards a narrow slice of Anglo-American academic philosophy, itself shaped by culture, history, and material conditions.

Callard is an immigrant from Hungary. Per Wikipedia her mother was a physician who worked closely with AIDS patients in the 1980s and her father a salesman. Her philosophy of the aspirant resonated for me, also an immigrant, a bourgeois striver, someone who not so much reads, but studies the New Yorker, to acquire its cultural values. No—not to acquire. I had meant only to understand what I was dealing with, and accidentally surprised myself in absorbing them. Callard, as a character in a profile, emerges as cringe, her pursuit of desire is problematic (crossing picket lines, hooking up with underlings). She is not like Sydney, a yearning shadow trapped in a second-rate search engine. Unlike the narrators of the millennial sex novels, she is either unaware or untroubled by her conventional desires. Unlike Krause, Ernaux, and especially unlike Megan Thee Stallion or Cardi B, no points for style. Though she is indeed unapologetic (her view on anger is literally in defense of grudges). Callard, though (in her self-presentation at least) does not dwell long in the desire (thwarted, obliterating, celebratory, or otherwise) but, from her position, takes, sating the desire. She questions neither the desire nor the taking, but the dissatisfaction.

Srinivasan quoting French philosopher Michèle Le Dœuff: “When you are a woman and a philosopher, it is useful to be a feminist in order to understand what is happening to you.”


Garak and Quark from Deep Space 9.

Quark: I want you to try something for me. Take a sip of this. Garak: What is it? Quark: A human drink; it's called root beer. Garak: I dunno... Quark: Come on. Aren't you just a little bit curious? Garak takes a sip, wincing as he tastes it. Quark: What do you think? Garak: It's vile! Quark: I know. It's so bubbly, cloying...and happy. Garak: Just like the Federation. Quark: And you know what's really frightening? If you drink enough of it, you begin to like it. Garak: It's insidious. Quark: Just like the Federation


1. I am deeply grateful and thrilled to be teaching about narrative at the School of Alternative alongside several brilliant artists in Black Mountain, North Carolina this May. If you are interested in attending, there may be spots still, consider reaching out! I am also psyched as hell to be attending Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop this summer

2. Bless her heart she’s got a tiktok what should I dooooo

3. Listen to the intro to Country of Dust, an amazing forthcoming podcast capturing the stories of a changing Armenia, produced by Jeremy Dalmas, Nyree Abrahamia, Gabrielle Kaprielian and Gohar Khachatryan

4. Pre-order Zoe Tuck’s book Bedroom Vowel, gorgeous poems and invocations, coming out in June

5. I am on the front end of an Ursula Le Guin deep dive with the Earthsea series and it is so fucking good. I recommend this 12-episode series Crafting with Ursula as well as just the whole Between the Covers podcast.

Lemme know what you are up to! If you enjoy all this, please follow and share.

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