A Red Harvest without Context

A week ago my library card expired, so I went down to my local library to get it renewed. On my way out I noticed that they were selling old, unpopular books for a dollar. Going through the shelves, I noticed a collection of the novels of Dashiell Hammett. Hammett is the author of “The Maltese Falcon,” made into an eponymous, early, and iconic film noir starring Humphrey Bogart as tough private eye Sam Spade. I bought the collection of novels and started reading it as soon as I got home. I was about halfway through the first novel, “Red Harvest” when I was shocked by a line of dialogue by the nameless protagonist, known as the “Continental Op”:

“If I don’t get away soon I’ll go blood-simple like the natives.”[1]

The line refers to the protagonist’s growing enjoyment of murder and mayhem. The reason this struck me is because the first movie made by the filmmaking team of Ethan and Joel Coen (known colloquially as the Coen Brothers) is named “Blood Simple.” I thought nothing of the title of the movie at the time I originally saw it because the main antagonist of the film utters the phrase. It was not just this movie that I was excited by in connection with “Red Harvest” though. It was another Coen Brother’s film, “Miller’s Crossing,” that sparked a revelation. I realized that the plot of “Miller’s Crossing” is very similar to “Red Harvest.” The Coen Brothers’ cinematic art is in dialogue, not just with other films, but with these novels. I never would have known this if I hadn’t picked up this book in the library on a whim, because I had to go there to renew my library card.

This story brings to my mind the value of context in constructing a foundation of useful meaning on which action can then be built, and the ability of that meaning to shelter us from the confusion of randomness. Random chance is a force which dominates so much of our lives, so much of our universe, and all human endeavor is opposed to the entropy of reality – all meaning is predicated on rejecting randomness.

When I see a Coen Brothers’ movie now, I can place it into the context of hard-boiled detective pulp fiction, allowing me to appreciate the tone and mood of the film in a different aspect than I had previously, maybe even to understand its themes and ideas better. Without this context I am reliant on sources of perceived authority to make interpretations of information or data for me, or I am prone to make an error of interpretation if I persist in examining information myself.

I’ve written about loss of context in history and now I want to talk about loss of context in our culture. Without knowing the origins and history of an idea, the idea itself loses meaning. This happens with words, phrases, and symbols as well, some words are used almost exclusively as a metaphor, and over time, we lose the metaphor and just have the word itself. A prominent example is the “save” icon on computers, it is still a floppy disk, younger users of computers may not even know what that is. When this happens, it is easy to abuse words, to lack rigor and meaning when making claims, to provide false or biased interpretations of events. In this manner, having a glut of information and data is the same as having none at all, because analysis is reduced to mere interpretation. Without the ability or knowledge to interpret mass data ourselves, it can be easy to accept the analysis of others – whatever their agenda may be. Consequences of losing connection with the past in our cultural and social context are that it aids the conflation of entertainment with knowledge and conflation of randomness with patterns. Loss of context also makes meta-references easier, driving out discussion and evolution of ideas and replacing them with tribalist anger. Stereotypes and scapegoats are creatures born from intellectual haze and are killed by nuance, but there is a lot of money and power to be made from stereotypes and scapegoats.

Our new data regime has led to an evolution in public cultural and political commentators giving rise to a newer species fitted to the environment: the independent culture warrior. This is not the old peddler of conservative or liberal values, but a person filling in the cracks. These independent culture warriors can attach their personal brand to some specific aspect of the cultural zeitgeist, and therefore tap into the audiences of online cults and tribes. One political example is the new populist politician, ostensibly a Republican or Democrat, but equally opposed to the GOP and DNC. Trump is the obvious example here, someone who was able to claim, and dominate, the brand of the GOP while rejecting broad swathes of the party platform. “Make America Great Again” is a nostalgic, context-less example of disconnection from any historical meaning. When was America Great, and what were the attributes of a Great America? These questions are too vague to answer.

There is the press critic – explicitly and almost exclusively attacking the homogeneity and bias of the large, national mainstream media. Joe Rogan and Glenn Greenwald are both flavors of this species, often invoking claims of bias in the media to connect themselves with populist movements. They have developed a niche that is beyond the stale forms of “left” and “right” politics and connect with feelings of paranoia and alienation toward powerful, established institutions. Complexity in the arena of media and government allow critiques to thrive which characterize a varied industry as uniform and allow the listener or reader to conflate a specific act with a general disposition. Without context, a criticism of a specific piece of writing by a specific journalist can come to represent an entire and monolithic entity.

In a different realm exists the new business mogul – people who were once motivational speakers are now FIRE bloggers, career-growth hackers, and anodyne futurists. Finance and economics are a ripe area for such spread in that they involve large amounts of measurable data that can be interpreted different ways with and without context and it’s an area which is salient to almost everyone. People can spend a lot of time traversing ground that was already mapped by someone else. After the GME short squeeze at the beginning of the year, a r/WSB-adjacent subreddit called r/GME dedicated to pumping GME stock specifically became popular — the subreddit reminded me of something: the posts on it are a direct parallel to the conspiratorial ravings of the defunct QAnon subreddits and white-male-grievance subreddits. Financial plumbing is esoteric and complex, about which narratives without knowledge can be easily consumed. None of these examples of people or ideas which thrive on loss of context should be read as implying that these interpretations are always “wrong,” just that they are not providing the whole story.

A little learning is a dang’rous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.[2]

The best antidotes to being victimized from lack of context is skepticism and to try and do the hard of work of actually learning things. Skepticism is useful in that we should try and be careful not to believe something just because someone said it, try to spot “arguments from authority.” Just because someone is presented as an expert, it does not mean they’re right. Learning things, well, that should be obvious why it should help, but is not easy. After all, at the beginning of this post I related how I lacked the context that would help me understand some films more accurately, and I did not know what I did not know. Learning some background on a subject, especially one that is divisive, can go a long way toward seeing through attempts to steer you toward ignorance. These antidotes may seem trite, and an example of something that is “easy to say and hard to do,” but that doesn’t mean that they’re out of reach for most people with effort. Without these bulwarks against manipulation and confusion, the urge for simplicity and authority can lead people down potentially destructive paths.

Ceaseless cultural and political division of the populace into discrete units will lead people deeper into digital dungeons. The diffusion of society into cults spreads to any area where there is complexity and large amounts of data. The spread of contextless information and how it changes the worldview of people who have more contact with society in the digital world than the real world draws some people into a delusional fantasy. Delusion is a key facet of the psychology of addiction, and the symptoms of submitting to context-less belief-systems can cause harm to society. Social media is itself addicting, as many forms of overwhelming abundance are, and context-less belief will come to be seen as a form of that addiction eventually – a “Media Consumption Disorder.” Right now there is political capital (and often financial capital) generated by protecting the notions of the deluded in both of the political power centers and in the crevices inhabited by the politically independent. And who watches the watchmen? Who decides what is a delusion and what is appropriate? I do not have an easy answer, but, like other medical conditions, I think it will be largely defined by magnitude of deviation from the status quo and harm to self and others.

Currently, the reaction of authority which does not benefit from online cultism and virality is the equivalent of the “War on Drugs.” They are seeking remedies in prohibition and punitive restrictions through means of censorship and breaking up the digital cartels of big tech and social media corporations. This will probably be ineffective and damaging to those subjected to those measures. Harm-reduction will probably become a more effective method of controlling digital outbursts.

There will be action and reaction regarding the rise of context-less information and social media addiction and ecosystems and ideologies will develop according to their own flow and logic, hurried along by unpredictable events. The future is dominated by the seeming randomness that only context can dispel, but as we sink deeper into media bubbles and infinite tides of data, we may all have to stop our savaging of meaning or go “blood-simple” in the process.

[1] Hammett, Dashiell. “Red Harvest.” Five Complete Novels, by Dashiell Hammett, Avenel, 1980. (pg. 102).

[2] Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism. The “Pierian Spring” is a reference to a spring supposedly at the base of Mt. Olympus where the Muses sometimes loitered. Here it functions as a metaphor for a source of inspiration or knowledge.

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