Hot, Lame & Shamanic
Developing a Good Conscience about Intelligent Ambivalence
Q: What’s the difference between Hot and Cool?
THE FIRST PART
In Which I nearly Abandon the Whole Question whilst Lurching toward Cognitive Nuances via an Instructive Mention (and suspiciously casual dismissal) of 20th Century Media Theory
Hot and cool? Hmmm. I will safely assume that the questioner is not referring to the relative rate of wiggliness among material atoms that might be measured by thermometers. It is possible that she is suggesting the famous “Marshall McLuhan” lens in which he differentiates Hot vs Cool media. McLuhan distinguished informational technology that communicates an overwhelmingly high density of stimulations to a single neurosensory channel in the brain (e.g. radio, newspapers, textbooks) from other forms of media (e.g. television, comic books) that provide low-density, multisensory, vague outlines of information in ways that invite participation, casualness & knowing distance from a world of strange juxtapositions.
But who needs McLuhan!
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Let’s just approach “hot” and “cool” as extensions of the colloquial — indicating distinct modes of the perception of attractiveness. She’s hot. That’s cool. Etc. What might these phrases imply?
Coolness suggests a certain intelligence. There is an implied social distance. You are far enough back from the heat so that you won’t get burned and you can see what might be going on. Many of the American film stars to whom the word “cool” was originally applied (e.g. Bogart, Dean, Nicholson) were not conventionally attractive nor did they behave in ways that were socially promoted. Instead, they demonstrated an adaptive mixture of authenticity and ironic distance. Cool phenomena are engaging and inviting (i.e. they aren’t cold) but in a way that respects your wariness and does not exhibit intense emotional reactivity or hasty conclusions. It proposes itself as superior to ordinary interactions. This evaluation accompanies an embodied critique of the many dysfunctional and unsatisfying but popular habits of dominant social life.
Hotness does not imply such a critique. No casual distance or extra evaluation exists. It is as ancient and straightforward as the Sun on a hot day. There is even no contradiction between stupid & hot. Getting overheated is not always smart. The annals of cultural history overflow with cliched cautionary tales about the distressing lack of social, emotional, intellectual, practical and conversational pleasure that may accompany a nonetheless “hot” mating partner.
Being hot is supposed to be quasi-objective and readily ascertained at a glance but such superficial glamors provide notoriously weak information. When a beloved comedian kills himself we are shocked. Why? Because he reminds us of fun and happiness and laughter. We classify him according to our own quick reaction to the gestural implications of his radiant posturing. At a glance, he seemed to be broadcasting merriment. Yet it would only have taken an extra second to notice a sad, broken and harried look in his eye…
That extra second is what this article is about.
THE SECOND PART
In Which I Cool Down “Hotness,” Cast Doubt on Quick Casual Signifiers of Social Attraction & Suggest a Strong Contemporary Need for Ambivalent Intelligence
Coolness is a relation between two temperatures — somewhere between hold & cold. We might be justifiably suspicious of its fence-sitting ambivalence, lack of concentrated focus and mild unwillingness to be fully immersively engaged. On the other hand, the risk of intense totalized channels of engagement (which bypass nuances, eschew subtle mixtures and ignore fluid contradictions) is very great. Especially in an age when our neurochemical machinery is so easy to hack.
Each style of attraction has its own risks and applies to only certain contexts. Although perhaps a cautious claim like that is already too cool? Well, nothing to be done about it now! Let’s cool down hotness even more by dividing it into (at least) two forms that vary by authenticity and complexity:
The first form of hotness might be called organic. We have evolved internal processes that decode the physical structure and subconscious signs exhibited by other people in order to verify genetic viability & interpersonal availability — as well as biological, chemical and energetic arousal potentials. It serves the billion-year project of life to be able to infer the relative health and potency of internal organs. It is also meaningful for us to be able to sense the degree to which someone’s voluntary musculature permits spontaneous flows of stimulation. And we wish to understand, mostly subconsciously, how well a person “owns” their mating response and can deploy it in adaptive styles with carefully selected other organisms for the joint purposes of genetic reproduction & the cultural production of liberating and spiritualized mutual hedonics.
The other kind is less “natural.” It is primarily social and associative. It works by visual and symbolic reminders of sexuality that can deviate significantly from the actual hotness indicators for which we have evolved a considerable bio-chemical interest. Popular commercial media has amplified this by developing a pragmatic preference for bland faces (screens upon which the maximum number of people can psychologically project), technologically enhanced chests, cosmetic decoration and constant, narrowly-defined displays of implied wealth — all of which can be revved up by specific camera angles and tricks of lighting. Then, of course, the images themselves can be tweaked dramatically in post-production.
A hoto (hot photo?) demonstrates that a person has the willingness and capacity to make efforts, or allow themselves to be used by other persons making such efforts, in order to hack our evolved interpersonal evaluation mechanisms. How attractive should that seem to us?
An exaggerated, collagen-stuffed breast or gel-based pectoral implant tells me something about the person but not anything about their actual bodies, organs, sexual viability, reproductive fitness or genetic lineages. Amplified social reminders of sexuality are designed to cause quick stimulation and rapid sorting of perception into the hotness category. The rapidity is key. It must work at a glance. If your eyes inquire a little longer then they may start to detect a variety of contraindications.
Perhaps what initially seemed hot will actually turn out to be lame.
Or, perhaps again, the cognitive hunger to quickly select a single perceptual category (such as hotness or lameness) is itself the problem. I don’t mean that it has no evolved utility but rather that our current epoch calls for something different. A little extra time, critique and tolerance for ambiguity will be increasingly necessary. We are in a time period when the ability to hold multiple overlapping interpretations of our perceptions is becoming a survival necessity.
We all know that our ancient compulsion toward sugar and carbohydrate energy is — under the conditions of modern capitalist production technologies — making us fat, malnourished and carcinogenic. We know that a chocolate-flavored candy bar with the word CHOCOLATE!!! written upon its plastic packaging in big bold letters is actually a far cry from an enriching piece of real chocolate. Our response systems are being hacked constantly and usually for the purposes of producing hasty and simplified addictive attractions that can be monetized. Hotness is killing us.
It takes an additional moment to remember that you are being hacked and that the ingredients within the product (or person) may bear little resemblance to the quick categorizing glance that wants to instantly make up its mind about attraction or repulsion.
That does not mean you should never eat a candy bar. The necessary process is not that of simply switching to the opposite category of evaluation. Rather it is about the fact that you do not have any agency until you find at least two opposed valences, moods or affects associated with your perception. Attraction and repulsion are automatic until you are both attracted and repelled. Ambi-valence. Then a choice becomes possible. And choice-making is necessary in order to maximize health and pleasure and productivity and depth in a distorted information environment that is actively trying to hack your evolved perceptual capacities.
Consider the notorious divergence between the large round belly and squat earthy fleshiness of the “strongest man in the world” in comparison to the tightly sculpted and preening male models who often socially represent the abstract commercial ideal of physical strength.
We have evolved a natural preference for strength but — which kind of strength? Which indicators are we responding to? And why? These questions do not even arise until a juxtaposition is created. A contrast between two different moods is required in order to make a more intelligent assessment. Just ask Hegel.
Perhaps a few hundred years ago we could still largely rely upon our snap judgements about value, preference & attention but today we are drifting in an ocean of deliberate attempts to nudge us with informational trickery and deceptively simplified social signalling.
The dumbest thing you can do these days is to believe your own “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” response. Not only is it constantly being hacked, not only are you being cultivated to be a yes/no responder (to systems of hidden control) but your own intelligence and your agency wait upon that vexing extra second of perception in which you observe different clusters of indicators pointing in different directions. Overlapping valences. Two or more feels about something.
We don’t want to have to do that extra work. But if we don’t….
THE THIRD PART
In Which I Start Talking About Psychoanalysis & Cheese in order to Reinforce the Need to Prevent “Affective Collapse” into a Single Polarized Interpretation of our Perceptions
Psychoanalysts are gross. Ask anyone. On the other hand, grossness can be very useful and interesting. For example, the disturbing psychoanalytic critique of the “virgin/whore” dichotomy tells us something about how we use simplistic polarization to avoid the internal effort required to face overlapping affects in perception. Some 19th-century chaps apparently confessed to their therapeutic alienists (great word) that they were impotent with their wives but fully sexually functional with harlots and trollops. Why?
Although all women have both sexual and nonsexual potentials, the brains of these fellas could only handle one or the other. The ambiguous mixture of perceptual data was problematic. They automatically refused to allow two distinct and overlapping valences. Instead, like kids with cheese, they polarized and simplified and totalized their perceptions.
Most children have notoriously underdeveloped taste buds and neuro-olfactory complexity. Their puny brains are easily hacked by modern logistics into gobbling up bland, rubbery, orange-painted “cheese products.” These unnatural bricks of inexpensively produced pseudo-cheese are made to glow supernaturally in their unformed minds while they loudly decry the offensive and abhorrent odors of more complex, organic, authentic and luxurious cheeses that are widely praised by the world’s more experienced enjoyers.
I’m being a tad facetious, of course, to make the point again that our tendency toward quickly polarized and totalized responses to perception makes us into more crude and less well-nourished beings than might otherwise be the case.
To begin increasing the wisdom and depth of one’s pleasure in cheeses, for example, one would have to experiment at the edges between attraction and avoidance. One would have underdo conditions of (at least minimally) overlapping interpretive frames. The presumed potential for some perverse pleasure has to be partially present while one is smelling and tasting materials that may nonetheless seem detestable to our current preferences.
This is the same basic process that is invoked when we take an extra second to observe the unattractive implications of a person or thing that rapidly attracts us. Maturation, nuance, growth, health, more pleasure (and more agency in the face of constant embedded manipulation) all depend, to some extent, on our facility for allowing our perceptual affects to undergo simultaneous and complementary divergence.
To knead the dough you must pull it apart and work it back together.
THE FOURTH AND FINAL PART
In Which We Broach the Inter-Tribal Ethic of Enhanced Complex Appreciation as a Prominent and Practical Part of the Suite of Skills that Contemplary Quasi-Shamanic Characters are Tasked with Cultivating in Emerging Digital Tribes and Civilization Generally
In an episode of the famous 1990s American sitcom Seinfeld, the character Elaine asks George Costanza whether a certain man is good-looking. He refuses to answer.
“You know,” she comments, “just admitting that a man is attractive doesn’t necessarily make you a homosexual.”
He gives her a long, weary look, shrugs and replies:
“It doesn’t help.”
The situational humor plays with the classic modern heterosexual trope of men struggling to avoid any inner possibility of queerness. It was especially funny at the time when America was starting its transition toward the social normalization of homosexuals.
Many men pride themselves on the degree of totality exhibited in their simple, polarized preference. I like women. A lot. And I find nothing attractive about men whatsoever! That position used to receive a good deal of social reinforcement until the acknowledgement of homosexuality by the legal system and entertainment industry left many folks anxious about precisely the thing we have been discussing in this article — overlapping or conflicting valences in our interpretation of perceptual objects.
Clearly, a male body (even in the gaze of a straight man) will consist of many different information signals — some more attractive & some less attractive. In a very orderly world, in which your status and wellbeing depend primarily on fitting into narrowly defined and homogenous social roles, it might be useful for you to group together all the non-attractive signals and ignore all the attractive signals. Yet in a complex, trans-cultural and planetary environment this is no longer a good strategy. The future depends on strange blends.
In order to face ecological challenges as a species, we are going to have to work together — which means finding something pleasurable about people whose culture, habits or political opinions strike us as offensive. Our global supply chains depend on working with “friendly” countries that are probably doing things we find morally repellent. Pertinent information and interesting ideas may come from types of people whom you would not like to sit next to. The internet will continually fill up with positive, negative and contradictory stories about every prominent person. New research means that you will always be discovering that something you like is bad for you or something you don’t like is necessary.
In this environment, we all have to get much more comfortable with overlapping and conflicting affects. Our brains need to get more efficient at holding multiple interpretations and our hearts need to become more tolerant toward the strange, ambiguous and complex. The cognitive pressure to quickly decide the dominant category of perception must be resisted.
This is where so-called shamans enter the picture. Some small percentage of the human population that has tended to exhibit more mental agility, diversity of modes of experience, identity fluidity, tolerance of the uncanny & fondness for the liminal spaces between worlds.
Historically, these weirdos did a lot of the work between tribes and cultural centers because they had more facility with conflicting data. A stranger is someone who both looks like us AND does not look enough like us! That’s an agitating contradiction that requires some finesse and social cultivation in order to be tolerated. Building societies and civilization requires a lot of this uncanny intertribal interfacing. And today it is necessary in order to get almost anything done or make sense of a pluralistic world that pours toward us from all directions. Without this intelligent coolness, our hotness instincts are likely to mean we get less done and are more likely to tear ourselves apart.
So one of the most essential ethical teachings for the current epoch is the necessity to dramatically increase our capacity for working with people and things that give us mixed feelings. Meaningful connections, useful information and collective action all depend in various ways on the skill of holding our attraction and repulsion simultaneously — not letting these valences collapse or interfere with each other.
Let your contradictory affects be friends with each other.
We inhabit a hypermediated, planetary & omni-manipulative environment that produces mass polarization, cultivates addictive yes/no reactions and yet it also depends for its security on dealing with people from strange, even offensive, “other groups.” Thriving in this environment will favor those who work well with their mixed feelings about all kinds of other people and products. Social and practical benefits will accrue to those who do not come to hasty conclusions about whether things are only hot — or only not.
You will have no way to handle the diversity and ambiguity of the new information landscape unless you follow the hint of the ancient shamanic weirdos and get much better at turning conflicted feelings into simultaneous complementary sources of information about the same people, projects and objects.
The usual human animal brain divides the world into attractive, repulsive or irritatingly ambivalent phenomena — but the brain we need today must start to find almost everything to be interestingly ambivalent.
And a significant gap is going to open between people who can do this and those who cannot.
Again, there is a place for the “hot” experience of getting engaged in a particular mode of action by prioritizing one set of interpretive affects and ignoring another — but, more and more, we will require the intelligence that arises in “cool” scenarios of juxtaposition, sensory balance, fluid contradiction and a smooth distance from incoming stimuli.
In Which, Having successfully Perverted the Initial Topic into a Complex Principle of Inner Practice appropriate to the Planetary Network Epoch, I Proceed to Call Back the Initial Reference to McLuhan…
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