Liminal Space 1.1
The hidden motives behind our actions
Welcome to Liminal Spaces, a weekly roundup of the things shaping the essays I'm working on. Since this is the first one, you’ll find a brief preamble immediately below.
Over the weekend, I sent out an email that included a reader poll. For those of you who didn’t see it (including the new arrivals here—hello) here’s the gist of what I wrote:
As I mentioned in my latest piece, moving forward, I’m planning to write essays that are more focused, longer, and more spread out. By more spread out, I mean two things: (1) the individual essays will be more expansive, and (2) there will be more time between the essays. How much more? I don’t know. But I’m finding that both the writing and the writing process are improved considerably when I allow for longer gestation periods—go figure—so allow for them I will.
This morning, while working out some thoughts for my next essay, it occurred to me that readers/you might be interested in a short, weekly roundup of the ideas that I’m exploring, the books and articles that I’m reading as part of my research, the different threads I see emerging and potentially converging, and other random odds and ends.
Would that be of interest to you?
The 25 percent of subscribers who responded voted 100 percent in favor of the idea. That was encouraging. Encouraging enough that I started putting together the first post—the one you’re reading now—with the idea that it should also serve as the first draft of a template for future posts.
I think the format below will work well for introducing new essays that I’m working on. I’m less convinced that it will work as well when writing about the same essay over several weeks. So there might be one format that I follow for the first week (1.1), and then another that I use when writing about the same piece over multiple weeks (1.2, 1.3, and so on). I’ll figure that out as I go, though.
Related: Each of these posts will end with an open call for your thoughts and feedback. So if you’d like to see things done differently, I encourage you to comment or reply.
The day after I sent out the poll, I asked for more opinions on Notes. In response, I received this great feedback from, who writes a thoroughly interesting, useful, and practicable Substack called :
Those are all excellent points. When I first read them, I’d already created the Liminal Spaces artwork and worked through several iterations of the basic structure of this first post. I was still on the fence about the idea throughout. But having a window into John’s thoughts helped me to see mine more clearly. So I jumped down from the fence and landed on the side with the little tornadoes of thoughts spinning all around and the big sign in the middle of them that read “DO IT.” So that’s what I’m going to do now. It. Let the evolution begin.
What I’m Thinking and Writing About
The hidden motives behind our actions
Subconscious reasoning and self-deception
The ways we’re wired to act in our own self-interest while tricking ourselves and others into believing that we’re not
Mimetic desire and modern society
Social status and signaling
The politics and social hierarchies of chimps, our closest living relatives
The Buddhist concept of anatta, or “non-self”
What I’m Trying to Answer or Solve
If we accept that it is in our nature to have hidden motives and be blindly and inescapably full of shit a lot of the time, for both better and worse, and with no lasting way to turn this behavior fully off, what can we do to at least counter it?
Writing note: Sometimes I come up with essay titles after I’m totally finished writing. Other times I come up with a possible title early on and make a note of it to see what happens. If it seems to guide me in helpful directions, then I keep it around. If it starts to feel somehow wrong or limiting, then I change it. In both scenarios, the title and essay and I all seem to be in dialogue with each other. For example, if the things I’m writing make the title seem off, and my awareness of that leads me to change the title, even just slightly, then the change that I make is likely to give me a clearer idea of where the writing should (and should not) go next. As both a cause and an effect of this slight shift, a bunch of new pathways are likely to open up in my mind—ones that were there all along, but that I definitely hadn’t been giving enough of my care or attention to prior to the shift.
In this case, and in trying to address the question/problem I’m trying to answer/solve, I’ve come up with a thesis that I wrote into a working essay title (How to Kill Your Audience) and subtitle (Or at least your “self”). Will they survive the full writing and editing processes and make it all the way to the end? I don’t know. I’m pretty fond of them at the moment. But if they start to seem like the wrong answer/solution—or just the wrong name for the specific little thought-tornadoes that they contain—I will not spare them.
What I’m Reading (or Rereading) As Research
The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Lifeand Kevin Simler
Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior
by Christopher Boehm
Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment
Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life
Why Everything Is Bullshit
Lessons from Cards Against Humanity co-founder David Pinsof
The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity
The Personal and Cultural Threads I See Emerging
My former life as a person with almost exclusively progressive views (from around the late 2000s, when I was living in Chicago, to around the late 2010s, when I moved to Thailand following a year in Cambodia), some of which were heavily influenced by my desire to be a good person—or at least look like one to the people around me, the vast majority of whom also had progressive views—rather than rooted in a nuanced understanding of the different sides of the issues
My former fixation on the culture wars over the course of a few years (from around the late 2010s until about 15 minutes ago, give or take), a time when I slowly shed my political and ideological attachments and increasingly worked to develop more informed views of issues and social dynamics, all of which led me to push back on a lot of ideas that I most likely would have supported—at least somewhat ignorantly and mimetically—a decade prior
My first identifiable point of transition between the two points above: the evolution that I observed (from Thailand) from the early to the later stages of the #MeToo movement (circa 2017–2018)
My (uncomfortable) reckoning with the fact that the social issues themselves have always been secondary to me (at best), and that my primary interests—the things driving my fixation—have always been the social and psychological dynamics, or human behavior and the relationship between the individual and the group
My very conscious (and suddenly, very easy) decision to cut the culture wars like a cancer from my mind
My conflicting feelings about touching any of the five points above in this next essay, since: on the one hand, I think that there is utility in exploring them, and that doing so illustrates, narrativizes, and thereby actualizes some of the more abstract things I’m reading, thinking, and writing about; but on the other hand, it would mean sacrificing some of my thoughts once again—albeit briefly and absent the ties that bound me to my past fixation—to the clear and total toxicity of the culture wars
What I’m Revisiting and Reflecting On
Norm Macdonald’s moth joke (2009)
Dave Chappelle: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor—specifically, one of Sarah Silverman’s comments (2020)
The Paradox of the #MeToo Movement and The Erosion of Women's Rights with Ayaan Hirsi Ali and(2021)
Chimp Empire (2023)
The Illusory Self with Sam Harris (Undated)
Other Odds and Ends
Enough about me. The two links below have nothing to do with my upcoming essay. I just found them both to be incredibly powerful reads. Both are dark and brutal but beautiful.
by Henry Rollins
I invite you to share them.
Is there something you think I should read or consider as part of my research for this next essay? Am I overlooking something? Would you like to see future Liminal Space posts structured differently? Do you want to share something about your own experience with one of the points above? Do you just want to share an observation? One directly related to the topic, or even one that’s slightly off topic or totally random? One, for example, like this:
Hi, Brian. Don’t you think it’s interesting that Larry David and Larry Charles (a) both worked on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, (b) both have the first name Larry, and (c) both have last names that are also first names? Moreover, have you ever noticed that Larry Charles and Rick Rubin look somewhat alike due to their long gray beards? And do you know who else has a last name that is also a first name, Brian? That’s right. Rick Rubin.
Yes. I do think that’s interesting. Please tell me more about it, or about whatever else comes to your mind after reading this. Either in the comments or over email.
I’ll see you all in Liminal Space 1.2.
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I enjoy so much reading this and can’t wait to keep reading about your process (and essays). I’ve been back and forward on how I want to build a community here in Substack and how I wan to approach my content creation/process.
I love the way you are building this online space and the idea of writing essays myself. Sometimes I feel like writing a weekly newsletter doesn’t allowed me to do a litter deeper research or to let the idea brew a little longer and see where it takes me. You just inspired me to approach my own process in a different way and you are proving the concept 😉
And than you for your critical thinking and integrity in the process, and working on this myself. I want to be more intentional and curious in my own newsletter.
Sorry if there is some grammatical errors ( English is my second language ). Keep the great work!
Thanks for the mention. One of the most interesting things about hidden motives is that they are often hidden from ourselves, to quote Schopenhauer "A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills". Motives around status and power are I think central as you suggest.
On this subject in particular you might find some of the ideas of Martin Butler quite interesting - he's deliberately pessimistic in his style and draws heavily on Schopenhauer, Spinoza, and Gurdjieff to explore the raw animal power craving beast that lurks within us all - I don't see things the same way as him but I do enjoy his thoughts and his style. Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLYD9PPuvOzC1aAzxwWFZcA47CXE5wSHN5 and his book The Corporeal Fantasy while certainly not to most people's tastes is a brutally honest appraisal of human nature.