Saturday, December 25, 2010

what exactly does a guy like Julian Assange want?

On a forum I frequent, someone wrote: It does raise an interesting question -- what exactly does a guy like Julian Assange want? What does he want that someone, anyone, can give him? Not celebrity, not money, not power ... What is left?

That, to me, is an extraordinary question. And, by that, I don't mean it's a stupid one. It's actually an elegant, pithy wording of a common attitude -- one that's diametrically opposed to a less common attitude. The part that kills me is "what is left?" It's like a knife in my belly.

An even pithier version is "Looks like someone has too much time on his hands." I've complained, on Metafilter and other places, about that phrase. I hate it. Like Assange, I have a lot of oddball interests (luckily for me -- and I really mean "luckily," because there but for the grace of God... -- hacking isn't one of them), interests that have nothing to do with power, money, notoriety or sex. I spend hours and hours on those interests, and so I get "Looks like someone has too much time on his hands" a lot. To be honest, my response (which I generally keep to myself) is "up yours, you soulless fuck!"

But I understand that, for many, those urges are pretty much all there is, except that I'd replace "celebrity" with a the larger category of social cache. According to this view, we do what we do for love, friendship, respect, money, power and sex. And that's it. Everything we do should be traceable (if not reducible) to one of those fundamental drives. So if I spend two years building a lego tower that I never show to anyone, I'm acting in an inexplicable way. I have too much time on my hands. I am doing stuff "for no reason," because when you take those commonly understood reasons, "what is left?"

What's left is working through a system, completing a project, learning a new skill, experiencing a particular sensation or ritual... not for any of those common purposes -- not so you can impress people, get girls or whatever -- but, as the famous Everest climber said, "Because it's there."

Sticking steadfastly to some political ideal is the same urge. Ultimately, it's aesthetic. It's working a system through to its logical ends, insisting on dotting every i and crossing every t. To that mindset, a system is pointless unless it's perfect -- or unless its experienced perfectly. This is the same drive that propels nuns to take vows of silence. It drove Jackson Pollack. It makes Stephen Sondheim say that every tiny word in a song lyric is vitally important. It makes computer programmers -- some of them -- spend hours coining names for variables.

(Amateur programers think the whole point is making the program work. It will work just as well if a variable is named hs as if it's named highScore. Pros know that getting the program to work is just part of the point. It should be readable, self-documenting and elegant. So highScore is a much better choice. Or should it be playerHighScore? Or humanPlayerHighScore? ...)

One of my obsessions is directing plays. Yes, I do it partly because it's a way for me to hang out with my friends. Yes, I do it because I like the praise. Yes, I do it -- or I did it -- to meet girls (I married an actress). I would happily do it for money, if only someone would offer me some.

But if you told me I'll never get paid (which is likely), that I could only direct actors I don't particularly like, that no one will ever see my plays, that (assuming I was single), girls wouldn't give a shit... Well, I'd be upset, but I'd still direct plays. That's right: I'd direct plays even if I had to act them out myself, in an otherwise empty room, for an audience of myself. And if you don't understand why I'd do that, you'll never understand "what's left." Because what's left is the process of working on the play. That can't be reduced to sex, money, power or social needs. It's its own need.

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