All posts by Mathew McGann

#54 On surviving for a living

Dear Jamie,

In 2009 I went on a trip to Europe. The year before I had read the life-turn-upside-downing 4 Hour Workweek and made a bunch of friends from all around the world. The ironclad arguments in the book had a year to stew in my mind. My friends, having graduated and left Australia, were one year into the rest of their lives. While the book was mulling and my friends were milling I was questioning whether academia was for me.

It was quite a trip to determine the direction of one’s life; the lifescape I was presented with over those two weeks was as diverse as one could bear. One started a career they still hold, one was starting PhD, one was dealing with a terminally ill family member, one had to force me to tightrope-walk a highway curb under construction in the middle of a still-running busy highway just to avoid gypsy taxis in Romania, one had lots of money but complained of having no meaning, more than one had relationships turn upside down. The whole time I had The Cat Empire’s The Car Song stuck in my head. The whole time.

In the precious moments that song wasn’t blaring, my mind was capable of expertly argued justifications why the structured path of academia was “optimal”, but my gut was bubbling at me it wasn’t real enough – or something, the gut is never as coherent as the mind. The ivory tower was super attractive, but it kinda felt, I don’t know, thin? But after weeks of painful deliberation, no matter how I cut it, I couldn’t honestly say I’d have been a net benefit for the world after costing $4M of taxpayer money to produce papers.* Well that’s not quite true. My mind was capable of justifying but it was incapable of quelling the ol’ bile dump.

In the intervening years I’ve come to believe that in academia I wouldn’t be surviving enough. Or, more accurately, I wouldn’t be surviving the right kind of environment. You survive academia the way you survive bureaucracy, by surviving the opinions of peers. Survival is an issue in artificial environments too, it just means less.

– – –

There are degrees of survival pressure. To take pure examples from stories, an example of little to no survival pressure would be the tower-kept sheltered prince. An example of the opposite would be Rick Grimes in a zombie apocalypse. Each extreme disgusts us in a different way. One is necessarily brutish, dirty, untrustworthy and cutthroat while the other invariably descends to be weak, saccharine, hoity and naïve.

What’s the goal? Do we want raise everyone to a white prince? We certainly don’t want everyone to be a Rick Grimes.

I believe that as humans we are subconsciously aware of the sweet spot between these extremes, and that that’s because a balance of these is the optimal strategy. I’m aware how loose and psychological this sounds, but if we have any pre-programming in our brains, surely programming around survival itself would be up there. The prince is free to be creative but is fragile, swept away (or adopting your colourful language “slaughtered”) when foundations shift. Rick Grimes can look after himself, but can’t progress at all, what with all the M16s of Damocles about the place.

The gut is a survival compass. It drives Rick Grimes’ to still get up in the morning even though it’s probably hopeless, and it makes restless those princes who have everything. Following that compass stirs life into being. This is all hardly new. As you said the elite have been milling about since the beginning of time, while the workers were doing actual milling. The inevitable “slaughter” that wipes out the aristocracy is merely a failing dike that once obscured the years of ignored reality at bay.

It’s true western societies are more tower-like than any other.** The idea that we need a new ethic to guide us is, I think, naïve. It’s the exact kind of thing someone in a tower would think.

We are asking the same questions as our ancestors just from loftier towers whose foundations stand in the same ancient soil. The question was originally of man vs nature, then chaos vs order, then god vs devil, then reason vs passion then head vs heart, to our 21st century picture of a biased but rational brain vs mood-determining gut biota.

Rather than implement an artificial moral or economy to finally crush the spirit of our gut so that people can live “meaningfully” in constructed towers, we should use our knowledge to eliminate true suffering and orient our civilisation to give our people the gift and respect of real problems to solve – at least we’ll solve real problems doing it.


* 30 years at average cost of $130k/yr. A solid underestimate for an average academic. Taxpayers have already paid me $130k to do my PhD.

** Though ironically I think democracies are the most real system. Our political system works so well because it succeeds more than other other in communicating reality up the chain. That’s my reasoning for why modern democracies are more real than the god-kings and their administrators. The irony is that intellectuals are stumped as to how democracies manage to survive despite all the mess, while in reality they survive because the mess is aired.

#52 On reasons for selection

Dear Jamie

Damn it man all I wanted was an exact explanation of the hierarchy of value boiled down into a sentence or two. What good are you?

I’d like to sully your thinking by forcing it into categories. Here’s what I have. It seems like there are four reasons to explain why a work has currency now. Firstly, what’s said and/or what’s interpreted has Continue reading #52 On reasons for selection

#50 On depth

Dear Jamie,

That was my favourite letter in some time. Thank you. I also love irony, at least when I’m aware of it.

The progression of agency in the history of literature was something I never really appreciated until you said it. It makes sense given your snapshots; a deus ex machina-heavy ancient Greek play through conscious fate-addled Shakespearean contemplator up to the unrelenting conscious agency of the agent James Bond. OK the last one’s a joke, and it’s because an invincible agency is as boring as a completely yielding one, which suggests to me this Continue reading #50 On depth

#48 On Groups

I realised after I sent the letter that I might have been wrong to say you dismissed it because it was Jesus. What I meant to say is that you dismiss it because it comes from a religion. Ex Schola would have been the better phrase to use, but because it’s less pretentious it’s less fun to say in a letter.

It’s absolute madness that fundamentalists think The Bible is perfect. And the exact opposite to this, which is to think it’s perfectly and absolutely flawed, is also madness. If you had never heard Continue reading #48 On Groups

#46 On hominems

Dear Jamie,

I’d like to invent a phrase. I proposed it on Twitter and a rando was able to give me the Latin for it. “Ex homine”. Rather than ad hominem (try to disprove an idea by criticising the person), ex homine (from the person), my phrase, is to automatically dismiss an idea because of who it comes from. The rando insisted that ad homimem does what I want, he has a point, but this second thing is so common I think it deserves this more precise version.

Jesus is an ethical exemplar only in the way that his story contains tidbits of ethical exemplarism. You’re triggered because Continue reading #46 On hominems

#44 On the struggle

Dear Jamie,

I’m sitting at my house in my spare room with that cool Canberra breeze invigorating my fasted frame. It’s a cold snap that feels like a reprieve from the extreme heat of previous weeks, but in reality it’s likely to be two violent swings of a unpredictable climate growing more extreme. Still, feels good.

I admit I didn’t know about COINTELPRO. But I was aware of other, more purely racist things like Nixon and his advisors recorded on tape actively working to increase racial tensions, and of course Jim Crow. But I do see a very uncomfortable reality that all* these “conspiracies” you mentioned were government-instituted. And government instituted because the people were either: undermining the government (COINTELPRO), weren’t trusting the government enough (Nixon) or not segregating themselves enough (Jim Crow). Who knows what the world might be like if the government wasn’t trying to fix our social lives over the last hundred years.

Now moving to systemic problems more generally. Continue reading #44 On the struggle

#42 On objective exploitation

Dear Jamie,

I’d already read the Atlantic article of Between the World and Me, and read it again after your suggestion. To be honest I found it baleful and conspiratorial. The end kind of saves it with a Christian-like “we’re all struggling but some more than others”. Though rather than a cosmic evil or an entropic universe his struggle is against a white conspiracy beyond the knowledge and intention of most of those involved. One of the issues with subjective experiences as we’re discussing them is that they can be annihilated when in contact with an opposing one.  At the time I also read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s response, a more optimistic reading of America despite her subjective plight being obviously more violent and horrible than Coates’.

Two topics have been rolling around in my head since reading your letter. Can subjective experience add up to an objective indictment? And what is the role of exploitation in history? Continue reading #42 On objective exploitation