Tribalism

Bit of a late start. After some back and forth in my head I started Count Zero on the way down here, having finished Neuromancer last night.

I’d kinda rolled my eyes at whatsisname’s perhaps flippant advice to listen to your favorite audiobook for 200 hours. But I’m on my 3rd run through of this trilogy in a row. No break, no pause. It’s really something else. The way some things recede into the background and other things begin to emerge is always interesting because you never know what’s going to fall in to which category until it starts actually happening.

There’s a great essay at the end of Neuromancer by I don’t know who, a testimonial to William Gibson. Inside it the author talks about the origins of science fiction (in the particular sense) and of how deeply tied it is to the upbringing of the authors, he and Gibson in particular. And this crossed in my head with my assertion (which I no doubt heard from someone else) that all writing is autobiographical. I’d resolved to turn my observant eye to my past, to start really focusing on writing out my autobiography in retrospect (as well as “in realtime” as I do here.)

Letting my mind work on that concept over the last few days (fueled a little bit by Colt’s unwittingly salient question about when I’m going to be done writing my autobiography) has evoked a certain train of thought in my head to which I will now subject you ;-).

I had an image on my way down the hill in my head about Outsiderness and the weird ebb and flow of various aspects of culture and how I’ve…for lack of a better term, built myself around not getting sucked in to them under the pretense that they seem particularly shallow and inherently valueless.

I figured I’d come here sit down and write about that specific aspect of things.

Again, meaningless without a contextual example:

Take any industry. Fashion. Fashion’s a good one because there are few entire industries for which I have such naked contempt and, well, I’m in a fucking mood this morning. (One might say “I’m a little bit off today“.)

I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be involved in the fashion industry. Oddly my father was, but in a financial context so that’s different. I have SOME exposure to things like fabric selections, industrial dyes, manufacturing problems, etc, through him. That’s not what I mean. Actually now that I think of it that all has nothing to do with the vertical industry and are just concerns of any manufacturing industry.

I mean questions of style. Designers and their pretensions. The way it’s got its own social caste system that starts from a tween girl drawing dresses to the hallowed halls of Conde Nast, and probably to the parties of Epstein and Weinstein.

I don’t know what goes on there. I don’t know how much authenticity even exists in those circles. I know nothing about their small talk. My only insight into the industry is the occasional glimpses of insipid horseshit I get on social media and the couple hollywood offerings on the subject.

I have no interest in it. It’s a vast thing that exists quite intentionally outside my world or, perhaps more to my larger point, outside of which I exist.

Now you can grab any definable collection of people and do the same thing, across any interest, profession, skill, past time, industry or identifying characteristic. Each of them have their own little sub-culture that is a thing unto itself with it’s whorls and eddies, fashions and ideas, orthodoxies and heresies.

The thought I had on my way down the hill was a reflection on my life and how strongly I resist the pull these things seem to have, how…self-referential and insular they seem.

Hell, even my own field as a programmer, I find the surrounding culture to be absolutely insipid. I don’t, generally speaking, have programmer friends. There’s almost no one I know with whom I can have a discussion of advanced software design. For my money that’s a pretty small price to pay. It’s notable to me that the couple I DO have aren’t really embodiments of nerd culture. Musicians and cigar smokers (again, cross sections of other…subcultures.)

As I’m bleating out on to this black screen, amber type and the dark reflection of my face staring back at me I’m trying to think through the whys and whats of it all.

What seems to be bubbling up is that they all seem like traps to me. Traps of ideas and behaviors that have no particular value outside of themselves; things to belong to and do just for the sake of belonging and doing. Sports fandom and obsession seems to me to be the same kind of thing. None of it really GOES anyplace and I find that pretty repulsive.

It seems, from the outside of all of these things, that people sacrifice authenticity for membership and tribalism, for that sense of belonging, for something to talk about with other people at bars or parties or cigar lounges or in the office.

Hell, one of the reasons I enjoy spending so much time at Johnathan’s, if I’m being honest, is that my friend group over there will never really be a peer group. I have no deep attachment. Sometimes I want it. Sometimes I envy what they’ve got going on over there, the way they’re all a part of each other’s lives.

But after a few months of watching any particular generation of the social circles as they evolve over time, like some Conway-esque iterative process (with fewer rules than you might expect) it becomes apparent that a lot of it is pretense, a sense of belonging that’s built on the house of cards of them working together or drinking together. It’s stucco, not brick. The social interaction is downstream of the setting entirely. So I watch what look like deep friendships fall apart, people come into and out of favor and the whole thing just looks like scaffolding built fifty stories high, yet made out of a material that can’t really support the weight it’s being asked to. And it falls apart over and over again. Then a new generation emerges from the rubble. Rinse, repeat.

None of this is to say I’m not interested in people. Quite the opposite. But I make a point of delving in to these subcultures and groups, vetting the everloving hell out of everyone I encounter, and pulling out of them the people who actually interest me.

That’s another side of this which I’ve always engaged in. I have a couple people I’d consider Friends from Johnathan’s, from Bible Study and the cigar lounge, from my last few jobs, hell even from Twitter and Twitch. And I can go spend time in their social niche if that’s what it takes to spend some time with them, though it costs me a lot to do so.

I’m constantly scanning those little near-tribes for people worth extracting, in part. It doesn’t always work. I find it fascinating that I can have a deep friend IN context, but the moment I try to interact with them outside of it, they simply don’t exist. Won’t respond to messages, anything. That’s fine, though I don’t really understand it very well.

Indeed at BasedCon a few weeks ago it was lovely to watch this group of tight-deep niche “enthusiasts” find each other and spend a couple days just obsessing. I loved picking their brains and getting into conversations of a depth to which I am generally unaccustomed. And there are a couple people that have crossed over to twitter who are really interesting. Though with them in particular there’s a geographic problem.

But after some existential angst I realized that as much as I enjoyed their company I’m…not one of them. Not really.

I’m not one of anybody.

I’m a subculture of one.

Always have been.

Of course the problem with that is wondering whether and to what degree that’s a matter of courage or a matter of fear.

Because avoiding what feels like a “tribalism trap” in one sense brings to mind Peterson’s descriptions of nihilism. “If nothing matters then nothing matters.”

What I wonder, on again and off again, is if what I’m doing isn’t just looking in all these places I dip my toes into for my tribe.

But then I shake my head as if shaking off a fog and realize that no.

I’m building mine.

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