first one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life; then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearance and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity

:— finally there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we wait for it, when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing: and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it. —

But that is what happens to us not only in music: that is how we have learned to love all things that we now love. In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fairmindedness, and gentleness with what is strange; gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty :— that is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way: for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned.

— Nietzsche

There is so much to understand, so many things to like - and all of us understand and like very little of it. 2 If you’re young, your preferences maybe define you - but you could be defined by something else. If you’re any age, they determine who you spend your time with - but you could spend time with almost anyone.

It’s easy to forget how inexhaustible the natural and human world is. This year I’ve been running classes on the art of getting into things. I collected all the interests and subcultures my students are into (or actively not into):

A few cultural codes (n=70 young Europeans)

Note that these are their answers to cultures they like and cultures they hate.

   - mathematics   - Poetry    - Training to control your body (e.g. yoga)   - Training to control your mind (e.g. through meditation)   - Instrumentals   - jazz   - Improv (e.g. Nils Frahm Ibrahim Maalouf)    - Effective altruism   - Nature   - mountaineering   - Introspection   - partwork   - Authentic relating   - anger   - Pop culture   - Twitter    - Gardening   - Fashion    - Japanese punk fashion   - vintage fashion   - Quantified self    - Tea   - Rituals   - ceremonies   - Love   - Theater   - Action movies   - romances   - thrillers   - Reality TV    - Manipulation   - frame games   - implicit communication   - Neon lights   - Fireworks   - making noise   - stage magic   - Being overly polite   - Cars   - Smoking   - Eating animals   - Narrative podcasts   - long form video essays   - mythology inspired fantasy   - ghibli movies   - fanfiction   - audiobooks   - consequentialism   - metroidvania   - TV   - rococo   - anime   - horror   - gender abolitionism   - news   - Nietzsche   - Freud   - self help   - bad takes on plagiarism   - conspiracy theories   - warm weather   - leather couches   - Having mentors   - curiosity   - joking about modern art   - watching sports   - Competitiveness   - dancing   - online courses   - old music   - gym supplements   - reggae    - cryptography   - playing instruments   - Fishing   - loud cinemas   - huge parties   - shopping   - politics in sports   - hermetic poetry   - tanning   - silent movies   - overthinking   - Alt rock   - Romantic classical music   - plushies   - AI and machine learning    - anthropology   - gothic horror   - minimalism   - heavy metal   - art deco   - lists   - colour theory   - dubstep   - rap   - mumble rap   - modern rap   - (German) Rap    - black comedy   - arthritis   - pornography   - oil painting   - physics   - misogyny   - misandry   - psychedelic drugs (or any recreationally for that matter)   - fandom wars   - baroque music   - film music   - board games   - comedy books   - feminism   - pop music   - Samba music   - murder mysteries   - film noir   - love stories   - waltzes   - minimalist music   - heavy metal   - horror films   - serialist music   - punk   - tinkering with electronics   - mindfulness   - anime   - playing video games vicariously    - rock climbing   - classic literature   - birds   - swing dance   - languages   - modern art   - running   - food   - techno   - modern art (most of it is garbage)   - twitter   - most TV   - critical race theory   - smoking   - wwe wrestling   - wow this is hard   - ok i give up: bunch of other music genres   - effective altruism   - transhumanism   - love   - La Dispute   - folk punk   - emo   - sentient beings   - cats   - movies   - tv shows   - anime   - books   - gadgets   - hanging out with people   - parenting   - talks   - education   - internet memes   - texting   - dancing   - drinking   - religion   - faith   - nationalism (any form of sectarianism really)   - harmful pranking culture   - posting pictures of yourself online   - marvel movies   - mindless scrolling   - Sailing/windsurfing   - mathematics   - acoustic/piano covers   - fantasy books   - LGBT   - Yoga   - baking   - vegetarianism   - hiking   - religions   - Japanese   - Englisch   - scones   - Alcohol consumption   - French   - modern art   - ASMR   - extreme nationalism   - TikTok   - patriachates   - traditional role models   - soccer   - nightcores   - hacker culture   - acoustic music   - anime   - film   - transhumanism   - fantasy   - history   - literary theory   - country   - comedy   - productivity hacks   - statistics   - malls   - car   - social media culture   - tv reality   - cult around luxury   - credential culture   - cryptocurrency for pure speculation   - short video content (<2 min)   - selfhelp   - celebrities   - A collection of stuff (organic molecules   - dinosaurs...);   - Rationality & logic;   - Linguistic puzzles;   - Surrealism literature & art;   - Typography;   - Soft rock;   - Physical simulation   - Physical intimacy;   - Antidiscrimination movements;   - Deontology;   - Environment protection;   - Animes;   - Postrock;   - Silly questions   - Alcohol   - tobacco   - and similar;   - Social Darwinism;   - Punk;   - Distrust in government;   - Digitization of books;   - Nonfiction thirdperson narratives;   - Celebrity culture   - HIMEHINA   - dystopianish books/films/music/games   - psychology/philosophy   - Burger King   - learning new fun concepts   - ML   - music   - even life hacks)   - EDM   - coding (when it goes well)   - writing (when it goes well)   - watching YouTube   - hanging out with friends (if all goes well)   - casual academic discussion (for fields I'm interested in)   - watching movies/TV shows   - Twitter/Reddit/IG   - pinball   - card games   - COVID   - COVID origin search   - presidential debates   - extremely hot days   - militaryrelated   - TV talk shows that end up being guests shouting over each other   - Puns / wordplay / banter   - Certain religious stuff   - Circling   - Meme culture   - Dunk culture   - Psychoanalysis   - Sharp criticism / bridgewater / radical honesty   - Making salient the ways in which men and women are different   - Social justice   - Seeing like a state   - Great Person view of the world   - Woo / new agey stuff   - Really incomprehensible art criticism   - The lens of degeneracy   - cognitive science   - grunge/rock   - epiphenomenalism   - NLP   - thingspaces   - modernist literature   - free will   - anime/manga   - icedcoffee   - number theory   - transhumanism   - badminton   - rap   - hiphop   - indie.    - introspection   - implicit wordassociation tests   - ballet   - birdwatching   - Apple Music   - indie movies   - celebrity culture   - finance bros.    - Cooking   - Persuasion and communication    - Vegan / vegetarianism   - (comic) books   - dog training   - scifi   - interdisciplinary research   - rock music   - math puzzles   - manga   - running   - meditation   - board games   - longevity biohacking   - coding   - gardening   - bird watching   - modern music   - sport cheering   - team ball sports   - watching sports   - makeup   - techno music   - religion   - being active on social media   - hand crafts   - luxury goods   - All classical art genres   - singleplayer video game   - movies   - theatrical production   - Classical music   - science fiction   - hard scifi   - linguistics   - rock&roll   - synthpop   - physics   - history   - philosophy   - Hollywood movies   - K-pop   - sneaker culture   - fandom   - geography   - tea    - whiskey   - ratfic   - ambient electronica   - philosophical Buddhism   - admiring nature through science   - effective altruism   - transhumanism   - RPG games   - board games   - alternative medicine   - metal music   - mainstream action movies   - anime/manga   - haiku   - birdwatching   - cultural revisionism & SJWs   - clubbing   - telenovellas   - youtube monologues   - dating apps   - reggae   - programming   - word games   - EA   - forecasting   - drinking socially if it helps me get laid   - quantified self   - nice and expensive gadgets   - cryonics   - physical violence   - gun culture   - going to parties   - answering questions about myself   - using mobile phones   - using something that isn't Linux   - trying out drugs   - Christianity   - mediocrity/lack of ambition   - going to loud parties   - crying in front of people   - the Hogwarts house Hufflepuff   - Microsoft Word   - The Guardian   - itchy clothes   - Twitter   - Economic rationality   - Mathematics   - Politics   - Faith    - Books   - Hypocrisy   - Death   - Betting   - Confidentiality   - Unions   - Empiricism   - Low energy conversations   - Pranks    - Noise music   - The idea of mental health   - Smoking   - Alcohol   - Bureaucracy   - The illiberal left   - Celebrity culture   - Gender abolitionism   - Body positivity   - Stimulants    - Modernism   - Effective altruism   - Animal welfare people   - Jazz   - Analytic philosophy   - Slate Star Codex   - Libertarianism/classical liberalism   - Rationality community   - Learning foreign languages   - Homeschooling   - Tabletop boardgames   - Reddit   - Being weirdly traditional   - Being patriotically Irish   - Poker   - Political tribalism   - Smoking   - Wokeism   - Antiwokeism   - Drinking   - Partying   - Loud music    - Nature   - Marriage   - Radical political / general state systems    - Psychology   - War    - Social media    - History   - Homophobia   - Cartoons   - Effective altruism   - minimalism   - veganism   - physics   - philosophy   - interior design   - friendships involving introspection and communication   - pineapple on pizza   - romantic films   - classic literature   - board games   - chess   - olympiads   - truth seeking   - go   - meditation   - polyamory   - taking drugs (caffeine   - acid   - MDMA   - ecstasy etc)   - Tik tok culture   - horoscopes   - excessive signalling   - marvel films   - films with dark aesthetics   - horror films   - saying ‘I don’t like kids’   - expensive cars   - manga   - gambling   - Agency   - Rational fiction   - Effective Altruism   - Transhumanism   - Free Markets   - Utilitarianism   - AI   - Social justice   - Environmentalism   - Binge drinking   - Conservatism   - Chess   - weight training   - machine learning   - beer   - English literature   - Social justice   - Emo/goth   - Dance   - Country music   - infovore   - taking unnecessary risks   - improvisation expertise (cannot plan)   - Science   - Literally any idioms (No matter how controversial)   - Conspiracy Theories   - Random philosophy bs   - Weatherspoons   - Guitar   - 4X games   - Old school hip hop   - Tea   - Go   - Chess   - MMA   - Vegetarianism / veganism   - Gambling   - Whiskey   - Note taking   - Fanfiction   - Anime   - K pop   - Friends (tv)   - Hustle culture    - Finance bro culture   - Dance   - Tik tok leftists   - Self help stuff   - Theatre    - Yugioh   - Folk Punk music   - Tabletop gaming   - Postmodern literature   - Modern art   - Coffee   - Tea   - NonModern art (especially sculpture)   - Alcohol   - Critical theory   - Transhumanism   - Free verse   - Camp   - Electronic music   - Effective altruism   - Charles Bukowski   - SelfHelp   - Opera   - Dance   - HipHop music   - NonMonogamy   - Gender nonabolitionism   - Haute Cuisine   - Everyday fashion   - Hard Scifi + reading in general   - opera   - Peking Opera   - Avalon   - Owls   - jazz music   - podcasts   - Stand up comedy   - punk music   - self help   - camping   - social media   - hacker lore   - historic fiction   - spoken word    - SCP   - Fruit on food   - romance scenes in movies   - soap opera   - zoos   - car racing   - Marvel movies   - tonic water   - scented candles   - ice water   - sci fi   - Cyberpunk   - Exercise (weightlifting & running mostly)   - Philosophy :)   - Biohacking/self ex   - Anthropology   - Open borders   - Religious faith   - Anarchism   - Fanfiction   - Emo (music or culture   - any wave)   - Effective altruism   - Massive generalisation to produce an ESPR class   - Car culture   - Weebs   - Keto (and carnivorism)   - Conspicuous consumption? Designer brands?   - Productivity culture? Productivity porn?   - Elon musk veneration   - Billionaires generally   - Rational egoism   - Trads   - Podcasts where it's either a) politics b) two guys hanging out c) two guys hanging out and discussing politics   - Emo rap   - Betting (e.g poker)   - Effective Altruism   - Clean code   - Yoga   - gender abolitionism   - Stoicism   - Meditation   - socialism   - agnosticism   - abstinence   - transgenderism   - Spirituality   - antinatalism   - minimalism   - Celebrity culture   - reality TV   - hierarchies based on age   - military intervention   - Humanism   - Organized religion   - Tik tok/vines   - sociology   - exams   - Attachment to brands (retail or car brands   - Apple)   - I'm sure there's a formal name for this...   - Economics   - Non fiction books   - Harry potter   - Strategy games   - Musicals   - Foodies   - Paintings and illustrations   - Any genre of music   - Movies   - Hiking   - Dog ppl   - conservatism   - Long termism   - Patriotism   - Cat ppl   - Any sport community   - Chemistry/Science   - Guitar music   - Publically sharing ideas   - Finding political middleground   - Pursue a better tomorrow   - Arts   - Learning new things   - Cultural evolution   - Travel   - physics   - mourning   - food waste   - radicalized religion or belief   - treating animals without empathy   - bad tap water   - Noblesse oblige   - sea shanties   - adversarial strategy games   - cooperative limited information games   - grand fantasy narratives   - multilayered schemes/mindgames   - low/no contact martial arts (eg capoeira)   - narrative poetry   - mindbreak (eg DDLC)   - ratfiction   - synchronized dance   - rap/hiphop   - Choral music   - minimalist art   - contact martial arts   - romance novels   - ancient literature/the classics   - puzzle hunts/CTFs   - religious study   - metal music   - street dancing   - ballroom dancing   - nonrat fanfiction   - unorthodox edgy extremism    - neoreaction   - sports   - team sports   - mystery fiction   - infohazard peddling    - equality of opportunity   - hivemind   - scorched earth/MAD policy   - knowledgebased secret societies   - Death worship/cycle of life   - freeform poetry   - gore   - normal edgy extremism (altright   - eat the rich)   - newage mystics (Deepak Chopra)   - racing/jumping sports   - snobbish art criticism   - statusbased secret societies   - equality of outcome   - original sin narratives   - Jung   - astrology   - mumble rap   - yodelling   - glitchhop (and most noise)   - dancing   - climbing & several weird sports   - puzzle hunting   - xkcd   - gelato   - experiental camps :)   - almost everything I guess   - music   - hardcover books over digital copies   - hairstyling   - boardgames   - ultimate frisbee   - US oversmily overpolite communication   - Tarantino movies   - meditation retreats (for long time   - monks etc.)   - Other people's coherent consistent models   - large parties   - effective altruism   - themes of sacrificing personal good for the greater good   - intuitive explanations for complicated maths concepts    - Metal music   - scenic walks   - optimism about the long run future   - philosophy   - status hierarchies   - muscular hypertrophy   - reviews and summaries   - tourism   - team sports   - art museums   - action video games   - fiction without significant emotional content   - stay at home mothers   - SCPs   - shonen, seinen, isekai   - scanlations   - Video essays   - Fantasy card games (e.g. Magic: The Gathering)   - Punk   - Goth   - Peking opera   - Fasting / extreme dieting   - Lovecraft   - Painting/Sketching   - Clubbing   - Cheese tasting   - Dating sims   - top models   - A fascination with pirates   - Boxing/MMA   - Historical autobiographical fiction   - Sports video games   - My little pony   - Poetry   - Kpop   - Kardashian culture   - Wine tasting   - Chinese language   - writing   - motorcycles   - living abroad   - perfectionism   - teaching   - acting   - tea   - ecofriendly   - vegetarianism   - trading   - business   - Islam   - luxury   - parenting   - cooking   - Marie Kondo   - HPMOR   - homesteading   - basically all ceremonies and holidays   - Halloween   - productivity culture   - School   - HR   - Informal logic   - 'Oxbridge college' culture   - Tea+coffee   - Late nights   - Introversion   - Chess   - Statistics   - Humanism   - Atheism   - Vegetarianism   - Platonic affection   - Physics   - Competitive games   - Astrology/Horoscopes   - Spectator sports   - Elaborate weddings   - 'Luxury' brands   - Speed/slam/spit   - Pyramid schemes (and corrupt lotteries)   - Clubbing   - Blind dating   - Masochism   - Music genres that involve boring chord progressions   - Theoretical Computer Science   - Movie Soundtracks   - Coding Projects   - Public Speaking and Debating   - Story Driven Video Games   - Self Help   - Spirituality   - Meditation   - Stoicism   - Zen   - Life Planning and Optimisation   - Steampunk   - Anime   - (very moderate)    - Supplements   - This is hard. I think most nontrivial things can be famed in a positive light.    - blogging culture   - science fiction   - musicals   - black comedy   - mistake theory   - shamefully flashy big budget movies   - elegant philosophical / legal arguments   - infinite games   - hipster culture   - cooking & cuisine   - watching dance   - LARPing   - arthouse   - competitive card games   - considered diets   - gym and weight lifting   - classic [rhyme] poetry   - military/martial norms   - survivalism/prepper   - hacker culture   - some critical theory   - 'high' or classic literature   - conflict theory   - CRT   - trying to pursue political change through word engineering/policing   - modern poetry   - oldfashioned masculinity norms   - Programmer   - AI   - post scarcity scifi   - low carb   - longevity   - pragmatism   - shorttermism   - animal welfare   - feminism   - strict veganism   - faith   - religion   - sleeping < 6 hours per day more nights   - loud music   - Card games   - Vegan food   - Rap   - Ecofuturism   - Nuance   - strategic altruism   - Poetry   - abstract art   - spirituality   - football   - crypto space   - conservatism   - dogma   - left wing politics   - Techno   - wine   - xenophobia   - crowds   - NFTs   - Straw rationality   - Postmodernism   - Radicalism   - Dancing   - volcanoes   - bird watching   - curiosity   - scientific method applied to life   - alone time.   - Theatre and the arts in general   - scifi books   - historical novels   - healthy nutrition   - board games   - hiking   - mind altering substances taken responsibility   - scepticism   - humanism   - growth mindset.   - Faith and spirituality   - muscle hypertrophy   - unboxing videos   - hypocrisy   - unconditional optimism   - hugs from strangers   - multitasking   - libertarianism   - chitchat   - identity   - games   - environment design   - Continental philosophy   - capitalism   - astrology/general divination   - politics   - romance   - individualism   - irony   - abuse of notation   - dance   - status games   - Descriptive epistemology   - normative ethics   - metaphysical opinions   - rent seeking   - essentialism   - optimisation   - guilt   - fear of breaking things   - enlightenment   - linguistic prescriptivism   - rock music   - experiments   - philosophy   - rationalism   - bullet journaling   - utilitarianism   - deontology   - virtue ethics   - agile   - phenomenology   - all kinds of music   - pain   - ice skating   - alcohol   - feminism   - sleeping all day   - psychoanalysis   - nihilism   - decorations   - feng shui   - smoking   - fishing   - hypocrisy   - astrology   - intolerance   - hédonism   - medieval philosophy   - weird narrative structure   - classic memes   - hacker culture   - fundamental physics   - space   - psychedelics   - loop quantum gravity   - doorstopper fantasy   - EDM   - MRA   - individualism   - religion   - magic   - capitalism   - poetry   - AI   - string theory   - proprietary software   - jazz   - revolutionary politics   - modern memes   - just works   - multiplayer   - veganism   - tinkering with electronics   - mindfulness   - anime   - playing video games vicariously (watching playthroughs)   - rock climbing   - classical literature   - birds   - swing dance   - languages   - modern art   - techno   - modern art (most of it is garbage)   - TV   - critical race theory   - smoking   - WWE wrestling   - Puns / wordplay / banter    - Persuasion and communication    - Veganism   - Certain religious stuff    - Cooking   - Circling    - Meme culture    - Dunk culture    - Psychoanalysis    - radical honesty    - Making salient the ways in which men and women are different    - Social justice    - Seeing like a state    - Great Person view of the world   - Woo    - Really incomprehensible art criticism   - The lens of degeneracy   - (comic) books   - dog training   - scifi   - interdisciplinary research   - rock music   - puzzles   - manga   - running   - meditation   - board games   - biohacking   - coding   - bird watching   - modern music   - team sports   - watching sports   - techno music   - religion   - social media   - hand crafts   - luxury goods   - Whiteboards (I mean not just the object I mean something larger about how one likes to think/move through idea space)

You can attempt to get into any such system of meaning. What’s a word for those? “Culture” - but they can be much smaller than the national units we usually mean by “culture”. So here take “a culture” to mean a subculture, an idiom, a scene, a style, a genre, a field, a medium, a view.

Claim: every human activity, and every group of humans larger than one, forms a culture. It’s often intentionally hard for outsiders to understand. Reality has a lot of detail, and humans, good humans, paint this detail with meaning and distinctions. Cracking these codes is the most important skill which is barely taught anywhere. 5

Every year I try to get into something major. Hacker lore (2014); “modern classical” music (2020); Chinese poetry (2011); Analytic philosophy (2008); economic rationality (2013); dank memes (2017); singing in public (2016); teaching (2020); this year, comic books. 3

Tyler Cowen's practice

I've been doing this for years, but I only became self-conscious of it after seeing Tyler Cowen's version. One of his most important blog posts is just 400 words long and reports on his far longer programme of getting into things.

I also view [cracking cultural codes] as an investment in understanding symbolic meaning, cultural codes of excellence, the transmission of ideas, and also how the details of an area fit together to form a coherent whole. I believe this knowledge makes me smarter and wiser, although I am not sure which mass-produced formal test would pick up any effects.

...I have found it highly useful, most of all for various practical ventures and also for dealing with people, and for trying to understand diverse points of view and also for trying to pass intellectual Turing tests.


1. Fun! Access more of the value in the world.

It’s more than just liking more cool stuff. It’s about treating your own taste and interest as an object in question, an object which could be worked on. About treating outgroups as puzzles rather than threats or weirdos.

2. Social life

What you like determines who you spend your time with. It often determines your life partner. Businesses and academic fields are famously culturally ornate and hard to crack.

You’ve probably had the experience of being at a party and realising that the stranger next to you shares your love of Japanese noise rock, or loose-leaf tea, or Afro-futurism, or Adult Swim. You’ve probably had some amazing conversations as a result. This tells us we can deeply interact with 10x more strangers.

3. Understand people!

  • You break off a piece of the giant impossible concept of human culture overall.

  • Subcultures do a large amount of all new and interesting work. (This is almost true by definition in art. But also startups: to replace a huge corporate incumbent, you have to have a different angle, and often they are outsiders.)

  • Mental flexibility. One of the evils of ageing is bewilderment: feeling that the world is bizarre and unmanageable, that you can’t interact with the young, that you are relegated. Active effort and mastery of cultures should prevent this.

Expensive example

It might also pay you. When I started working in tech, I didn't negotiate very hard, under some silly assumption that pay would trade off against respect and security.

In reality, you must negotiate pay to be respected. The more someone pays you, the more they will respect you, to retroactively explain their paying you so much.

This is unfair, unwritten, and a massive part of your lifetime income.
(This graph applies to corporate culture, not other parts of business.)

Why aesthetics?

Above, I made grand claims about large portions of all human activities being available to crack. 8 So why am I talking about comics?

Aesthetics is a great place to start because it’s so cheap and the experiments are so quick. It’s also surprisingly impactful, socially powerful. 4 And also because once you stop seeing your taste as immutable (or god forbid correct) you can pursue all of the rest of the world.

I really think there’s a general skill here - that understanding punk deeply really does increase my ability to understand Tanzanian culture, let alone prog and disco and post-punk and dub and thrash.

A spectrum

Three ways of relating to a genre, a medium, an art, a school of thought, a field:

  1. Love: to find value in ordinary examples.
  2. Open to: to see the value of the best examples.
  3. Not open to: to struggle to see the value of even the best.

I claim that 0% and 100% are basically never correct. Most things fall into 30-40%. We want to move from 20% to 60% on most things. (It would be very distracting to love everything.)

Pick something you’re not open to. Ask:

  • Why don’t I like it?

  • Do I not like the people who like it?

  • Do my friends dislike it?

  • Does it offend me? Is it ugly? Low class? Pretentious?

  • What is it trying to do?*

  • How would I have to change to get it?

* didn’t realise that I’d ripped this off from Ebert. Or from Christgau, who ripped it off from Ebert

Actionable bits of a cultural code

To make something interesting, just look at it a long time.
― Gustave Flaubert

1. Canon.

You need to start with the greatest (or the most accessible greats) so that you can remove one source of uncertainty and solve for the remaining unknown: your stomach for it. Some cultures revolt against the idea of a canon, and but all of them have secret shibboleth canons behind the listicle canons.

Finding critics you can trust helps, because their activity consists in taking the unwritten and writing it down. (Obviously they never fully succeed.) Outside literature, academics are often surprisingly poor critics.

Once you know the canon, you can get the allusions, and you can understand the principal components, the ways instances are supposed to vary.

Note that I do not mean the vanilla starter-pack consensus canon! For instance, learning about great cinema through Oscar Best Pictures would be a terrible idea. Nor do I mean the dumb hipster inversion of it.

2. Jargon, conventions, techniques

Too specific to say much about here. Critics again, or else a hard act of empiricism.

3. Material conditions

Say you try it. Say you pick the top 10 all-time whatevers. But you bounce off - it all seems so contrived / so hostile to its audience / so trivial / so pretentious. What to do?

One powerful trick is to study what Marxists call the material conditions. 1 For our purposes this is not a grand reduction of the ideal to the economic, it’s just 1) how capital-intensive it is, 2) the demographics of the creators and audience, 3) the tempo and complexity of production (weekly for manga, a month for a serious poem). Then: how do they do it? Those timelapse videos of someone painting or carving are ideal.

I watched every Kubrick film and didn’t really see the fuss. Then I read up on him, and learned that e.g. he had thousands upon thousands of doorways in London photographed while location scouting for Eyes Wide Shut. It’s not that obsessiveness means quality, that inputs mean output. But it means meaning. As I rewatch him, I have good reason to consider many parts of the production as meaningful, and in fact I like him far more on the second runthrough.

Only once you know what’s good, what the axes are, and how it’s made can you understand originality, deviance, substyles, and your own sense of the greatness.


  1. Try to go a week without art or entertainment. Fasting, clearing the palate; creating a need in yourself
  2. Find a critic you can trust. Friends are best. [2 weeks]

  3. Where is the quality? What is it trying to do? [2 weeks]

  4. What are the material conditions? [2 weeks]

  5. If you really can’t see any value: what’s sociologically remarkable about it?

  6. When do I just accept that I am not capable of liking this? 6



In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.
– Paul Dirac, or

Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling… If the poet presents directly feelings which overwhelm ... they cannot strengthen morality and refine culture, set heaven and earth in motion and call up the spirits!
– Wei Tai (魏泰)

Critics: Paul Keegan, FR Leavis, IA Richards, Harold Bloom, Wei Tai

Material conditions: mostly people without jobs, alone, intentionally floating free of society. No capital requirements and mostly subsistence pay. So mostly posh people or patronees. 7

Aims: many!

  • Oral history
  • Propaganda
  • Teaching (mnemonics)
  • Social critique
  • Seduction
  • Philosophy
  • Religious expression
  • Emotional expression

Almost all modern poetry is written in the latter mode, the lyric-confessional. If you think you don't like poetry, this might be why.


This ^ is one of the all-time great punk recordings. It has 5 chords (or rather one chord moved around a little) and was made by 16 year olds.

Somehow this ^ is punk too. They took punk to mean freedom (ha!), and got the real freedom afforded to the thrifty at least. By a band who practiced harder than you would believe.

Critics: Michael Azerrad, Daniel Sinker, Steve Albini, Robert Christgau, Piero Scaruffi

Material conditions: Ideal teenage culture. Parents don’t like it, it’s incredibly easy for you to participate, cool and edgy, easy uniform, expresses & ennobles alienation you were feeling anyway. DIY. Cheap! $5 gig tickets. Skill optional. Shocking on purpose. Alternative economics. Full lifestyle. Distortion covers mistakes.

Aims: The expression of alienation. Easiest to express this as a critique of society, consumerism, war.

Punk is probably my deepest engagement with anything I don't literally work for or belong to. Here is my theory of the ideology.

effective altruism

Critics: Toby Ord, Paul Christiano, Nate Soares, David Pearce, Bernard Williams, Larissa Macfarquhar, Angus Deaton, Phil Torres and Amia Srinivasan if you must.

Material conditions: We got rich, and so able to help. We got data, and so able to check. We got universalism, and so the will to help.

Speculatively: the EA attitude is rare because of scope insensitivity, localism, maybe economic illiteracy, and (justified!) background cynicism about charity and foreign aid.

Aims: to make the world as good as possible (whatever that means), using econometrics and philosophy.

anime / manga

Critics: Ada Palmer, Adam Elkus, Gwern, Tamerlane, SD Shamsel. 9

I didn't understand manga at all before knowing the material conditions: often one chapter per week, low pay, enormous catalogues of copy-paste backgrounds. The author does not know when the series will be cancelled, so it's impossible to plot properly. Shirobako is an anime about the material conditions of anime.

It's very important to understand Japanese drawing even if you hate it. It is massive and growing fast. The French government is currently spending about €200m a year on manga, because they were beautiful and decided to trust French youth with their own cultural spending.

Manga is not about virtuoso linework but here are some examples to study. (The background of the latter is a standard library asset.)

My gloss: The essence of manga is exaggeration. Men with swords taller than them, preteen superheroes, all kinds of bodies which couldn’t be, all kinds of facial expressions and gesticulations which didn’t exist until they memed themselves into real life. But you can exaggerate anything, it doesn’t have to be combat or sensuality. And the exaggeration tends to take a certain form: self-exaggeration, aspiration, the psychology of becoming excellent. There’s one about being a better chess player, one about being a better baseball player, one about being a better farmer, one about being a better teacher. All treated with high drama, extreme closeups, and OTT declarations. War against one’s own lack of skill and character.

What will you like? What will you understand?

See also


Despite 8 years of trying I still don’t love mathematics. Despite 1 month of trying I still hate haiku, Heidegger, Youtube monologues. That’s fine! (But also, help.) There are things we should not like. There could be things we should not understand, though probably not many.


  • Pick something you don’t understand, but want to. Run the procedure!
  • example of an unwritten rule you realised recently
  • example of using one code to understand another
  • Examples of cultures you “get”
  • Any you understand without liking?
  • Have you ever intentionally gotten into something?
  • Have you ever failed to get into something despite trying hard?
  • What don’t you want to like?

Chaining codes

If you like Gwern’s statistical work, you might be able to use his anime or tea criticism. If Scaruffi on krautrock thrills you, maybe some of his odd views on everything else in the world will land.
If you love film, then you already have a royal road into modern classical music. Film soundtracks are the main way that classical music is now appreciated.
I once used football to get into Tanzanian culture. (I wasn't even that good on football.)

  1. Marxism. Code cracked: 2009. Described myself as "economically Marxian, politically liberal" for a while. Yeah yeah, I know.
  2. Bookish people are known to lament not being able to read everything. But consider what a tiny amount of the world books are, how little of it is even mentioned in books. e.g. All but the broadest and most brilliant arts people are too undisciplined to even attempt the vast beauty and humanness of maths and engineering.
  3. or as the intellectually insecure call them, "graphic novels"
  4. There are some social costs to liking some things, but mostly not, and aesthetic taste is mostly invisible.
  5. Ideally, formal study of the humanities would teach this skill. And in fact I did crack some awkward codes as a result of my degree: I am unafraid of philosophical logic, postmodernism, German idealism, Euro cinema, etc. But an Arts degree has many goals: history, activism, guild reproduction, and these together tend to take up lots of the curriculum.

    Anthropology has versions of this, of course, but the ones I've seen haven't been very useful or analytically satisfying. (Though I confess that anthropology is one of the codes I have long struggled to crack.)
  6. An incredibly important skill in itself: to make peace with not liking, to just like people liking it.
  7. I have a piece coming on the many great exceptions, the worker-poets. Pessoa, Thomas Wyatt, John Darnielle, John Clare, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Czesław Miłosz, Cavafy, Larkin, Neruda, ...
  8. Besides the activity of identifying as a member of an ascribed, proscribed, or earned culture.
  9. These were incredibly hard to find: it's not that anime is worse than other artworks, but the fans are.


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Tags: art, meaning, philosophy, subculture


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