General Serial

Rend/Render IV

TIFF Notes Summary Part IV

The seed of thought and action, the sapience at root of identity can be found deep in the obscure reaches of our selves. In every way, it’s where we begin.

Underlying the events of our lives are the actions prompted by our experience and history. A bit circular as logic goes, but bear with me. A minor paradox rests in the center of any question of agency. Spiritual agency, the overall power we have over our own fate, is the response to a hidden question, a nudge, an impulse. It’s counterintuitive. In a sense, we arrive at our destination before we begin our journey. We are subject to forces and influence all around us, near and far.

The transmission and replication of ideas — as with the discipline of Memetics — works as a framework worth applying to questions of point-source thought and action. The discipline has been abandoned as a useful tool for analyzing human evolution, but retains value as a metaphor.

Limiting myself to the broadest possible interpretation of Memetics, I’ll focus on influence as the force which moves the world. It is influence which lurks behind agency, purpose, and action. The struggle, in a very real sense, is to get free of the hold influence has on your inner world.

When directed with intent, influence is a living creature. Ranging wildly across time and experience, it’s surprising and predictable in turn. We catch a brief glimpse of its form and then it’s gone again. Made visible by wake or shadow, it’s a beast we recognize, a force we sense rippling through our lives.

Harnessing and exerting influence is a predominant function of the systems ruling culture today. These are behaviours newly evolved, adapted from the wider, more traditional realm of authority and control. Representing an all-encompassing accretion and collation of data, these new modes of executive action are empowering business and political authority in ways previously unimaginable. This state of play requires we make judgments about power and its nature.

Legitimate power is accountable to the future it creates. Illegitimate power is accountable to the moment, the trend, the cresting wave of scarcity and demand. Legitimate power has substance only when founded in values focused on sustainability and longevity. Illegitimate power holds few meaningful values.

When at their best, our lives are full of choice and opportunity. Yet this does not come free from cost. Current circumstance begs we ask to what we owe resistance. What will we agree to, cope with, struggle against, and fight to achieve? In answer, we make decisions about routes and paths, time and passions as we follow our curiosity and our dreams. In this way we make a world for ourselves, those we care for and those we love. Inviting strangers and friends to live alongside us, we choose and shape the boundaries of our own private nations. We share our traditions and our lives. The borderlands of these territories can be volatile, the boundaries temporary. It isn’t easy, holding borders against the unknown. Even the vigilant are overrun. It is, nevertheless, vital we are mindful of the ground we’ve sown, the ideas we’ve developed, the future we imagine, and the dreams we chase. Absent thoughtful consideration and reasoning, we are little but mechanistic mobile objects, reacting, responding, subject to vagaries. Opportunity lives in a space without certainty, a no-man’s-land. It is in this tenuous middle where we are most at risk.

Polarization, bickering cultures and sub-cultures, radicalization; these are but the most visible examples of some dangerous trends. A constant companion, our technology functions to ensure we are tracked and assessed, quantified and analyzed. People have been reduced to units of economic resource for the use of forces unseen. Our biases and passions are whipped to frenzy. We’ve grown accustomed to the unthinking pursuit of a thread, an interest, a trail of breadcrumbs dropped for us by corporate interests or an algorithm. We’ve become pieces in a game played with sophistication and finesse as never before.

En masse and in the context of a social landscape, techniques of influence achieve startlingly powerful outcomes. At risk is the very basis of human values, the crucial product of hundreds and thousands of years. While values and beliefs are not inherently sacrosanct or unchanging, they are rooted in function, community, shared benefit and shared burden. These delicate forces are being compromised, though unevenly, all over the world. We are in the midst of an unravelling of human traditions and values, belief and spiritual agency. The weaving of those remnants into sackcloth is a terrifyingly real possible future for humankind.

Looking beyond the present day and into a future we may not view with optimism or hope, it is important we remember this world is one we are making. We create the world with our beliefs, our values, and our dreams. The challenge here, the trick, is to find a path to the future we desire in a way we truly define for ourselves. In the context of spiritual agency, we are in a fight to master that future, to write our own story, and live it, within the bounds of a world forever seeking to dominate our potential and turn it to purpose. We must, if we are to preserve our humanity, recognize the forces at play, query the influences riding our confidence, our fears, and our aspirations. As we move through time, those small questions and minor changes of mind can move us. In ways unnoticed, or drastically, as from one side of the world to the other, a persistent disregard for spiritual agency will drive us in ways unforeseen though not inconsequential.

General Serial

Rend/Render III

TIFF Notes Summary Part III

Closing on us from the future is a primary challenge to our species. An empowering, potential-actualizing destiny for the human race is threatened. The current landscape of human existence is undermined by the pursuit of short-term, extractionary goals. Our awareness is inundated by noise and confusion. Our technology addicts us. Systems are designed to separate, divide and frighten us. What hope we have to shepherd our species beyond the problems on the horizon depends on the survival of the human soul. Spiritual agency is a vehicle for that journey and the throughline of these posts.

Agency is the power to exert control over your life. Spiritual agency is a more encompassing conception of that idea. At once, it is the specific authority of personhood while also an acknowledgement that life requires a deep process of actualization. It’s the freedom to think and to act based on factors inherent to your person. Agency is the foundation of identity and a birthright. Spiritual agency is the root of life, and a responsibility.

Running counter to agency is suffering. Suffering compels action, forcing reaction. As with chaos and order, light and darkness, these forces are forever in tension, always shifting. Agency helps create, while suffering is a destroyer. In an individual life, how great that destruction is often grows from the breadth and depth of the suffering being lived. These forces are interlinked. They demonstrate the power of suffering to compel acts of spiritual agency which inevitably end in annihilation.

Freeing yourself from suffering is a deeply motivating impulse. Getting free from suffering shifts some people only towards chaos and misery, perhaps driving their alcoholism, domestic violence, or self-harm. For others, it’s a matter of creation, of hobbies, of meditation. Any outcome is built of possibilities. In a normal life, freeing yourself from suffering is a matter of routine. In a homeless life, freeing yourself from suffering is a task nearly impossible to accomplish without self-destruction. As with even the simplest moments of our lives, options colour actions and choices. In this way, agency demonstrates its crucial role in human society. Tearing free of suffering is, appropriately, a definitive act of personal spiritual agency.

General Serial

Rend/Render II

TIFF Notes Summary Part II

People who’ve never been homeless look for the silver lining. An article of faith, it’s existence is assumed. According to this line, homelessness holds a lesson for the individual. It’s not a well defined lesson, nor is it quantifiable. There’s a lot of talk of fortitude, stoic values, and wherewithal. Promoting this notion, typically, are polite men and women, middle-class and comfortable, people who’ve never gone hungry except by choice.

The don’t-lose-hope bromide of the housed is a broken conception of life. Originating in the axiom hardship mines beauty, it’s a flawed belief. Eventually, the thinking goes, a soul will emerge from a chrysalis of suffering and pain, transported, transformed, a thing of notable beauty. That is not how suffering affects most people. Austerity is pain. Excess does not build strength.

The public’s understanding of homelessness is a bundle of flaws. A disfigured preconception casts us all as a type, as a generic embodiment of sub-human life. What humanity we are granted is but a dim reflection of the public’s willingness to see us, and their need for affirmation. The homeless live in permanent dusk, a state of interruption, incomplete. This stasis, raw economic disadvantage, is the intersection of system failure and schadenfreude. We are adjudged less than equal to any and measured by an unequal standard.

Homelessness is an alien existence. It’s a terror. For the homeless, there is no hero’s journey model of redemption, and no reversal to propel us into resolution. Relegated to symbol and type, we are denied normal in all its forms. What option remains for us? How, when systems have failed so badly and communication is impossible, do you bridge these worlds?

Tell me, what are the boundaries of your existence, as you perceive them? What is a normal life? What is it you hope for, dream of? Any place on earth you’ll find the answer is very much the same. Love, family, friends. Purpose, meaning, a future. This way, life is made livable, the spirit is nourished, the world broadens to the limits of imagining. These commonplace ideas are what bring people together.

Metaphor, symbol, and imagery all work together to access and link the real and imagined. Language, in this, is powerful yet insufficient. Nevertheless… For some, the diamond serves as a useful metaphor. It’s true, a diamond’s beauty and value is the result of the application of time, pressure, and expertise. Yet, left buried, uncut, and never brought to its potential, a diamond has no value.

General Serial

Rend/Render I

TIFF Notes Summary Part I

The films and media I suggested during TIFF22 present elements which piece together to describe a conceptual through line. They’re not tidy or concise. Relying on the audience’s foreknowledge of context is a habit difficult to break. As an expression of core ideas, the posts are not particularly well composed. Nevertheless, I put together the series for a reason.

Eleven posts. It’s not as organized a work as I typically expect from myself, but that’s as may be, seeing much of what I’ve posted is written in haste. The limitations I face are not mysterious. Homelessness takes from a person everything they have, just to survive. It needs a reserve of dignity and self-belief to struggle on, often grappling with no less a beast than annihilation. The easiest thing a homeless person can do is lean into oblivion.

Homelessness has a profound effect on a life. Arising as if from nowhere, questions of mental well being, physical and emotional health fly, jittering, across consciousness. Desperate poverty subsumes time and opportunity, crushing everything before it without mercy. Potential is subverted. Circumstance, lack, and absence direct events in an unnatural inversion of human living, a scouring of the spirit, irrepressible and overwhelming.

Aphorisms reassure us life is a journey towards wonder and beauty. We are implored to weather the difficulties and take heart when in our darkest moments. Homelessness is, eventually, a destination. Ruled by the whims of others, life as a homeless person settles into patterns of disconnection. Perception narrows. Dreams atrophy. Goals focus on survival. Potential dries up. An ongoing trauma unfolds. Life in a shadow-world of time without meaning or a future is a deadly struggle in overcoming apathy. In every moment, the factors we live under choose the frame and set the lighting.

Deep in the wilderness of homelessness, perspective and self-awareness come alive. A new reality, cold and vast makes way as uncertainty, fear, and grief set in. Fierce and intimate adversaries, the fight itself is an achievement. Fail to resist, sink momentarily into acquiescence, and you face final defeat. That way lies only emptiness, and an inevitable, grinding, death of the self.

Persevering in this wilderness is a challenge that strips away everything a person needs to get safely home. Life and human society are what make the world, but power and agency are what make life happen, and make it meaningful.

Archive Serial

Thrift Store Death Spiral III

Thrift Store Death Spiral – Three

The standard approach to dealing with problems and errors in a system is mitigation. We mitigate the probable cost of crime by employing police, and by doing things like supplying the poor with welfare payments. We mitigate the trend of economic failure, repossession, foreclosure and exclusion by providing unemployment benefits, consumer credit and payday loans. We mitigate stagnant income and rising transport costs by gradually shrinking the portion size of food items. We mitigate the cost of producing those food items by substituting ingredients of lower quality. Toxic agricultural practices, unsustainable frameworks of corporate governance and policy, on and on — this web of generalized unconcern mitigates the responsibility and the accountability of power structures which have never taken their position or their responsibility seriously. Despite the reality that people everywhere are paying a human cost for systems-wide neglect and malaise, profit margins don’t shrink much and traditionally-defined inflation is virtually non-existent. By common metrics, that means we’re doing it right — which assumes we’re measuring the right things, of course. Returning to the point, thrift stores fit nicely into the category of mitigation. There are some uglier terms we could apply to the overall function of donation-based retail — ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is one — but let’s stick to some practical aspects here.

The poor need many of the same manufactured goods that everyone else use. Clothing, furniture, shoes, knick-knacks, items of utility, few or none of these are likely to be hand-made by a modern individual. With a need to economize, the poor and working people of our society naturally look for secondary options, legal and illegal. Thrift stores are a reasonable response to that demand. For the purpose of illustration I’m going to use the example of an item close to my heart, shoes. Some people buy new footwear based on fashion, season, or social requirements, as with a graduation or funeral. Others will only own one or two pair of shoes and wear them until they need replacing. Then you have that breed I’ve never really understood, who simply love having a lot of footwear options, buying and buying and buying shoes that they wear a little at a time. Seems a little weird, but that’s people. Whichever sort of consumer they are, the people in this example one day decide they’re going to donate a pair of shoes they’ve not got any further use for. You can imagine the difference in shoe each different type of consumer might be donating. The person who buys new shoes for style or occasions is likely to be donating moderately used items, well cared for and of brand name quality. The person who only owns a couple of pair will be donating shoes that probably have little in the way of life left in them. The shoe-obsessive is probably laughing at anyone who gives away good shoes or buys from a thrift store, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here and say it’s probably a donation of a pair of high quality shoes with maybe a scuff that won’t take polish. Now we have these three sets of donations, each of a quality that you’d hope represents the broadest range you’ll find at your thrift store, good quality, poor quality, and subjective.

The important parts of a shoe are the heel, the blade, the toe, and bridge support. The upper and the sole are important, to be sure, but when the interior of the shoe has collapsed, the rest doesn’t matter. My own shoes wear pretty heavily at the heel, collapsing the support in a poorly made shoe fairly quickly. Some people ride the outer blade of the foot, which breaks the edge of the internal part of the shoe down. Others are particularly hard on the ball or the toe of the shoe. Across brands, these problems will exists depending on design and material. Most of the shoes you’ll find on the shelf will have at least one of these issues. Depending on what condition the shoes were in when they were donated, the internal wear pattern can be tolerable for a little while, or at least until you can find a better pair. If they’re in bad shape from the start, though, you’ll end up walking around like you’re drunk, always a little off balance, always seeking to correct and offset inertia and momentum. Worse, it can badly affect your posture.

The quality of the products on a thrift store shelf is entirely dependent on the quality of products people have donated. That in itself is dependent on the decisions being made by those donating. Some people donate items because they no longer have use for them. Some donate items because they have obtained something newer or better. Some items are donated as a matter of habit, people thinking of a donation as recycling. As salary and wages continue to stagnate and people of all income levels are motivated to look for savings, a long and insidious cycle begins. More shoppers accessing a limited pool of items, all sourced from the consumption cycle, means there are fewer items available overall. That difference, between goods manufactured and goods reclaimed, presents us with real problems. With no mechanism to increase the available supply, the existing material is depleted more quickly, and standards, already low, are lowered. The poor and working poor, people who have a real need to shop for necessities at thrift stores have increasing difficulty finding the items they need.

Over a slightly longer time-line, the impact of the complex of factors which produce the conditions in which thrift stores, dollar stores, and retail liquidators thrive creates a situation that reaches into the homes and families of the middle-class and of professionals. This has a dangerous, cascading effect.

Archive Serial

Thrift Store Death Spiral II

Thrift Store Death Spiral – Two

As a result of the time I spent in thrift store book sections, I found some real treasures. Those, I remember happily, were mainly passed along as gifts to friends. I remember with particular fondness finding one of Stephen King’s books in first edition. It was published under his nom de plume, Richard Bachman, including a fictional author’s photo and bio, which made it a rarity. It gave me immense pleasure to gift that to a childhood friend of mine who was very much a King completist. My own treasures were mainly reference books. My interest in gardening… well, I’ll spare you some obvious puns and simply tell you I was always on the look-out for titles on specific areas of horticulture. Like many who get a little obsessed with the subject, I badly wanted to grow orchids and other rare cultivars. Unfortunately, I hadn’t the right set-up or budget at the time.

Serendipitously, gardening and horticulture is an area of interest aided by a natural correlation between source material and relevance. That’s to say you’re not likely to find a book on desert gardening where there is no desert. Of course, as is true anywhere if you’ve an eye for it, it’s possible in a thrift store to catch a glimpse of the wheel of time in motion as trends in fashion, design, and aesthetic rise, fall, and rise again. The gardening world has it’s own trends and fads, some of them very distinctive. Terrariums and aquaculture were quite the thing back around 1977, apparently. Those have both evolved radically but as elements of interior design their resurgence has been subsumed, repeatedly, by larger forces and excluded by more powerful design strictures.

Apart from books, I centered my shopping on coffee mugs and cardigans, records, (too many) useless experiments with 8-Track, some minor furniture restoration projects, that kind of thing. I was never one for buying second hand appliances, those (by the time they get to a thrift shop) typically being useful only to people with some interest in tinkering. It wasn’t until I became homeless that I would come to depend on thrift stores for footwear and clothing. As a result of that necessity, I’ve tracked another sort of pattern developing in thrift stores, a worrying change in standards. If you’ve done any bargain hunting in the past ten years you’ll have noticed this change as well. It makes sense when you contextualize the life-cycle of a thrift store, but is easy to dismiss as unimportant or coincidental. When you zoom out a little, though, you may agree with me when I tell you what I think this pattern indicates.

(Most adults have a detailed awareness of the concept of supply and demand, I know, so please forgive me as I describe a version of it here for the purpose of framing.)

Normally, a retailer stocks items that have been manufactured to meet the demand of consumers. Consumer demand is something that depends on a lot of factors, not least being the amount of discretionary income available and a consumer’s willingness to spend. Typically the number of items available, cans of soup as an example, won’t far exceed the amount expected to sell in a given amount of time. This is fairly safe as an arrangement for all parties. The products consumers want are made available, and as they run out, more are manufactured and delivered. The consumer does not usually have to wait, and those involved in the process of producing, ordering, and transporting those products can safely assume they will be sold, which allows for planning and all of the correlative processes around businesses linked to retail sales. Because of the responsiveness and efficiency of production and shipping systems, those involved can respond to consumer behaviours fairly quickly, adjusting processes in the supply chain based on needs and expectations.

Thrift stores are unusual in the retail landscape because of their supply chain. For supply, thrift stores rely on behaviours that are based entirely in the consumption cycle. The improvised nature of that supply chain is vulnerable in some unusual ways. Its development and process involves a couple of important decisions. The cycle begins when a consumer buys an item, new. At some point, they decide they’ll discard the item and, instead of putting into the trash, they donate it. It’s pretty straightforward. While it is the nature of a consumer society to generate a steady-flowing stream of waste products as the cycle of demand, acquisition, and obsolescence proceeds, the introduction of re-consumption as a significant portion of that system has some problematic outcomes.

Thrift stores are a sort of outsider, a foreign influence, or, to borrow a word from two loves of mine, movies and gardening, they are a ‘grex.’ A grex is an unnatural or artificial hybrid. This is something you may already be aware of, as it’s a concept from botany mentioned in the 1978 movie, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ It’s proposed by one of the leads as a theory for the presence of the strange flowers that have started appearing in cities. While the film offers no explicit explanation of those unusual flowers, it’s safe to imagine they are the hybrid product of an alien life-form and an Earth-bound botanical native. You might also think of their function as akin to that of a virus, or perhaps the Xenomorph, living by diverting native resources towards producing undesirable outcomes not easily checked. As a description for what thrift stores represent, those flowers and their pods offer a pretty robust metaphorical hook.

As a group, people prefer to be lead. Our leaders are very effective at placation. As things exist right now, we live in a society that accepts the existence of poverty as a fact of life. Our society acknowledges the existence of chronic homelessness, hungry children, widespread deprivation, abuse of power, and innumerable ongoing problems. We dedicate resources to things like homeless shelters, holiday food drives, safe houses for abused people, and other stop-gap efforts. Yet collectively we do as little as possible to actually correct those problems. We settle for dedicating the minimum of resources and apply the lowest standard of effort. It achieves an easy-to-measure outcome and ticks some boxes on a form. We make ourselves complicit as we ignore the failures of our systems, trading away the lives of others for the comfort and safety of our personal worlds, keeping to our own small bubble. Sure, we sometimes wear pieces of ribbon, or go for a group run, a march, or retweet political ideas, often producing meaningful results. Some people volunteer, others work within the system, hoping to bring change in that way. The source of complex problems can take a long time to recognize, and even longer to know what to do about them. No matter the issue economics play an important role, both in the solution and the problem itself. Once we see the root of a problem, it is easier to imagine a way forward. Thrift stores, dollar stores, and other elements of the broader day-to-day of human life serve as indicators, as weather-vanes for an underlying reality. In a society that continues to only apply short-term fixes, spin, and tactics of division, problems will continue to propagate.

Archive Serial

Thrift Store Death Spiral I

Thrift Store Death Spiral – One

As someone who moved away from home early I often had to find ways to stretch my funds. It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar situation. At that time, which was before Wal-Mart, before Amazon, and just as Dollar stores were opening across Toronto, anyone seeking discount retail value only really found it at second-hand and thrift shops. Early in my teen years I’d found second-hand bookshops a great place to discover new stories and authors. Not always the broad selection available at the retail chains, but a reliable source for some of the greats, and at a discount. Downtown had an abundance of used book shops, while my own suburban neighbourhood had only two. The calculus involved turned any search for a new book into something of an adventure. Really hunting around for the right book at the right place and the right price was a fun day out for my teenage self.

There’s more to life than reading, and more to books than shopping. Putting my acquisitive experience on a more practical footing, I did a lot of comparison and measuring, usually around cost but also which edition and what cover art any given book might have, the condition it was in, and whether it would fit in my back pocket. Thrift stores were, naturally, a resource. They could be found, much like franchise fast-food joints, paired up and competing wherever they stood. My apartment wasn’t large, which set a high bar for what came through the door. Small pieces of furniture, records, books, and miscellaneous tools and implements all had to meet criteria beyond simple need or desire.

Goodwill, Salvation Army, Value Village, there were perhaps one or two others… They each had that same distinct odour. (I mean, it’s not a bad smell, really, but if you give it any thought it’s definitely enough to make your skin crawl.) This being before the internet, I sought new information and guidance browsing book sections. There were usually a lot of books on spiritual and religious matters, pop psychology, and a hodge-podge of card game and car mechanics guides. My own hobbies were primarily gardening and house plants at that time. Having taken a deep interest in those subjects, the abundance of magazines and reference material was like a feast to me. The fiction was all pretty mainstream, and there were the inevitable large-format discount hardback books full of glossy pages recommending poorly designed culinary fusions, shoddy homeopathic advice, and unproven crafting projects. Adherence to genre and category were lax on the shelf, and the amount of attention paid to monitoring was limited to clumps of new arrivals all being fit into the appropriate section, resulting in a process of natural selection disturbed only by curious and indecisive shoppers.

Across franchises and locations the selection was at times uncannily similar, even consistent. Noticing this, I would often speculate on how much effort I ought to put into scrutinizing the shelves. A usual trip thrift store shopping was with my girlfriend at the time, which meant we were browsing with purpose. My approach would be to break away and give the book shelves a quick scan, just because. That would sometimes pay off, though not as often as a more thorough search. In some stores, though, a thorough look could take as long as an hour. To save time, I developed a kind of consumer profiling system in which I would try to predict behaviour. I’d guess at which would be the least-often-browsed sections, usually the uppermost and lowest shelves. It was easy spotting where no books had been added or removed. Using this approach, I could, when I made the rounds of our shops, focus my search in areas that I knew few others would have looked. Additionally, I relied on the probability that an employee adding books to the shelves would go about their work applying the least effort, and made plans to influence where they would apply their efforts. To this day I remember observing those upper shelves developing movement at a much slower rate than mid-level shelves. By creating gaps on the top shelves, I found I could encourage placement of new additions there so that I would get first crack. Another tactic I tried out involved basing my level of time-commitment on how quickly I came across a copy of the novel, ‘Coma,’ which virtually every thrift store had a copy of. It was a little unusual to find that book absent. Hard as I tried I couldn’t make a correlation between the selection available and the volume of copies of that book. No doubt there’s some explanation related to demographics and timing, sales, distribution, and the appetite for (re-reading) thrillers, but that was all beyond my expertise and interest. Ultimately I found that while I could influence the probability of success (as I defined it), I had no reliable way to predict my chances, so I just read every title on every shelf and sorted the wheat from the chaff.