Wake Up Call #2: the Cult of Cosmic Ambivalence

"Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning." - Joseph Campbell

You can't do anything about it.

Like a simplistic, less cynical Alfred E. Neuman, the Cult of Cosmic Ambivalence returns to mainstream consciousness through the indifferent phoenix of its newest incarnation: the shrug emoji ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. As The Atlantic summarized last year, "With raised arms and a half-turned smile, it exudes the melancholia, the malaise, the acceptance, and (finally) the embrace of knowing that something’s wrong on the Internet and you can’t do anything about it." But is the Internet the only plane where our generation feels powerless?

I'd apply the shrug's countenance of acceptance, despair, and surrender beyond the 'net and offer it as a sensible response to existence itself, where we small individuals are confronted day in and day out by powerful forces "we can't do anything about." In a world where the simple act of selecting something to watch on Netflix can escalate to stressful contemplation over countless alternate realities — the Universe where you chose Friends is far removed from the one where you finally saw Breakfast at Tiffany's — the shrug's resigned indifference offers a new approach to choice: Why not both? Or neither? Let's just not worry about it.

Corporate Cosmicism

In the early 20th century, H.P. Lovecraft pit human protagonists against overwhelming forces and terrifying creatures of the cosmos, indifferent to mankind's very existence. Lovecraft's fiction reflected the anxieties of emerging consumer culture, where individual humans were reduced to confused, vulnerable pawns on a chessboard beyond their kin. But past the limited concepts of the individual lurked unbearable truths, suggesting that while we were becoming removed from each other's physical company, we were increasingly sharing psychic space with entities who could brush us into a dustbin of terror and insanity without so much as a shrug.

As corporations rose from workers' toil, their mission to produce capital degenerating into strange identity crises around branding incomprehensible to uni-person beings like us humans, the resemblance to Lovecraft's Great Old Ones and Outer Gods grew. These were unspeakable things that dwarfed our puny notions of self, family, and society, the scales at which we evolved to be comfortable. They wanted us to behave in specific ways, purchase in set patterns, and they could use sound, images, and collective pressure to influence our choices. Advertising, in fact, frequently celebrated the "power of choice" itself, while masking how these branded entities' power grew with every successive selection. What was the individual to do when she discovered that the struggles of her own existence, viewed from a larger scale, resembled a gnat attempting to swim its way out of rapids?


Like you know... whatever.

Fighting fire with fire, our generation adopted the Universe's indifference to us as our own, reflecting it back into the void with the primal scream, "Fuck it, dude!" While political empaths tuned in to the woes of the world, and saw the horrors of capitalism feeding off human misery, the naive #blessed set praised unseen cosmic forces as helpful— to the point of banality. The Universe served as their own personal Jesus, eager to carry them down the sand whenever they were too tired to walk to Jamba Juice on their own. But in-between those extremes of despair and delusion is a silent majority unable to side with either, waffling between both until a frustrated tipping points opens a startling way out: Ambivalence. 

Ambivalencenoun \am-ˈbi-və-lən(t)s\ simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action.

In chaos magic, the post-modernist take on occult theory that emerged in the 1970s, contradictions are honored and dichotomies reduced to meaningless distinctions by the warm embrace of "Why not both?" In the squiggly lines and bemused grin of the shrug, I see a similar attitude of stress-free acceptance. Confronted by opposing forces, each eager to prove dominance over the other, the shrug signals a refusal to play the game, opting out in favor of general agreeableness. Go with the flow, be Zen, keep calm and carry on.

Surrender (but don't give yourself away)

Critics of this stance, especially from older generations, are quick to equate "ambivalence" to "apathy," but I denote a sharp distinction. Apathy is drained of energy. It's resignation in the face of imagined futility. Ambivalence, on the other hand, tends towards the Christian concept of "surrender" or even "grace;" acceptance when confronted with actual futility. Or as the Serenity Prayer, the credo of Alcoholics Anonymous, states:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference."

The shrug is the distilled icon of serenity, unperturbed by cosmic futility. In a world where identities are defined through options — paper or plastic; kale or bacon; Netflix or Hulu — the shrug signals a return to relaxed receptivity. Before the remote control thrust the obligation of choice into the hands of every consumer, entertainment wasn't selected through individual preference but rather achieved by surrendering to the current state of things as is. Watch a sunset. If a bear shows up, watch the bear. If the bear leaves, go back to watching the sunset. It's not in your control, so why feel the need to exert your will arbitrarily?

Rather than living as inert lumps with no influence over their own existence, members of the Cult of Cosmic Ambivalence see how all members of modern society are barraged by an overabundance of choices, suffering from too precise control over life's arbitrary details.

Instead of spending thirty minutes reading packages and weighing the implications of Cookie Dough Double Stuff Oreos against Gluten-free Red Velvet Oreo Minis, the individual surrenders to intuition and randomness, grabbing the first package that looks appealing. Instead of giving zero fucks to everything, the enlightened ambivalante doles out fucks wisely, saving them for critical junctures when options aren't equivalent and the scale of self, family, friends, and community make the effect of effort more pronounced. But when confronted by cosmic scale, cultural trends, and the fine-point politics of individual identity, cosmic ambivanauts opt out in favor of blissful resignation. What? Me worry? 


Wake Up Call #1: Infinity and beyond

Approaching Infinity

The first step to being a wizard is becoming hella cosmic and the first step to becoming hella cosmic is orienting oneself to a larger perspective of "the Universe." As human beings who evolved from savvy tool-wielding apes, our senses are set by default to the scale of our immediate surroundings. Tripping out on space and time is fine and dandy — actually, it fucking rules — but we only developed the frontal lobe capacities for such groovy musings by first mastering the art of throwing rocks at lions and other predators.

This means that even though modern knowledge ranges from the tiniest itty bitty sub-atomic particles to the vast Universe bordered by the background radiation of the Big Bang itself, regular people tend to pretty much keep it locked on whatever's within spitting distance. We worry about who's sitting next to us, how to get from our house to the 7-11 and back, if the person sitting next to us knows we just went to 7-11 to buy loaded Doritos, and maybe plan the occasional trip abroad. But for the most part, we don't fuck with Infinity.

Big Universe. Big deal.

The Universe is big. In fact, it's freaking huge, mostly empty, and filled with spooky anti-matter and the occasional drifting Russian monkey corpse. But it's definitely big as evidenced by how fucking small you can feel when you look out at the stars on a clear desert night and groove on those vast vibes. Infinity, however, is not big. In order to be big, a thing needs another object for relative comparison. Shaq is big but not when compared to the Iron Giant, if the Iron Giant were real and not just a cartoon voiced by Vin Diesel. Vin Diesel is big except when he fights the Rock in Furious 6 and then you're like, "Oh fuck, when did the Rock become the human equivalent of those jumbo-sized G.I. Joe dolls!?" 

So the Universe is big because in the Matryoshka Russian nesting doll scale modern astronomy laid out for us (thanks Cosmos!), it's bigger than galaxies, solar systems, and puny little planets like Earth. But Earth is huge compared to cities and houses are huge compared to apartments in midtown Manhattan. It's all relative, baby. Except when you're fucking with Infinity and then nothing is relative because Infinity. Is. EVERYTHING.

The "all or nothing" of Infinity

Infinity is an all or nothing proposition. If we accept that whatever this that we're experiencing is isn't just nothing masquerading in the fancy costume jewelry of existence (and it could be. I don't fucking know), then we've got to deal with "all." Otherwise, a finite world is constantly butting up against the strange fence of non-existence, and if you throw a frisbee over the fence, who goes and gets it? God? Is that what God's for? It's a whole metaphysical mindfuck not worth messing with, especially since Infinity herself is so much sexier and more appealing.

"I ordered this cloak on Etsy."

"I ordered this cloak on Etsy."

On the right is Eternity from the Marvel comics universe, who is basically a personified trip to the planetarium. I know Marvel also has an Infinity but it's like a lady in yellow spandex and that's whack as hell. The point is, you can picture Infinity however you please but it will always be wrong, because no matter how many Urban Outfitters galaxy print tights you dress her up in, Infinity by definition will exceed any borders set. That's her whole deal.

The best way to visualize Infinity then is as one of those trippy Mandelbot zoom fractals (see below). It just goes and goes and gets weird and maybe it repeats or wait no it's still going ah hell yeah fractal you crazy! So if you imagine your current location as the starting point, you can zoom out or in with similar results. Let's go small because that sets up the joke I want to make.

How small is it?

Journeying into the realm of the teeniest of tinies, you get past atoms and nuclei to quarks, where the only thing smaller is Donald Trump' hypothetical penis (hey-O!). Is it possible that things get even smaller than quarks and politician penises? I say yes.

1980 was a banner year for dick-size quark jokes

1980 was a banner year for dick-size quark jokes

When contemplating Infinity, the likeliest manifestation seems to be the Horton Hears a Who scenario where whole worlds and universes exist at the smallest levels. This means that your body, made up of cells, made up of molecules, made up of atoms, made up of quarks, is probably made up of weird tiny baby universes. That's pretty chill until you realize that "As above, so below" and our Universe is a little baby universe in the weird super enormous molecules of some trippy other plane of existence. So the question then becomes, "Is our Universe actually part of some bizarre cosmic creature's butt or dick?" I'm not a quantum physicist, but my dad is and I called him and he said, "Yes. Absolutely." So there you have it.

It just goes and goes until you realize we're all in the butt of a space whale.

It just goes and goes until you realize we're all in the butt of a space whale.