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Controlling Commonness

I took a break from “A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History” to breeze through “Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth” (I know). my reading hiatus on Nonlinear History will probably continue so that I can wrap Venkat’s new ebooks.  I hope to finish Nonlinear History in early October.


“Mystery Teachings” is one of those books I could not have really engaged with more than two years ago on its title alone. I was only even really able to engage it now because I enjoyed the author’s previous work- I mean, doesn’t the title sort of connote a vacuous New Age book for graying hippies? It’s dense and thought-provoking, though, very common for all of Greer’s work (crazy or no), and I especially enjoyed the first half of it. The second half appealed to me a little less. Either way this post probably smells of that book.


I also want to reiterate that I am still writing regularly here. Every person has a million words of shitty prose in them before they can ever really write something worth reading, and I’m still trying to knock those million out.



My posts are usually scheduled for a week or two ahead of when it is published (I started this post on 17 September). Last week’s posts were written three weeks ago.

Between then and now, I took a two-week break.


Since I started this blog, I cut out an hour everyday to write. At first “finding the time” was difficult, but the writing quickly became a habit. Once I stopped, I felt especially aware of that new time I gained. Obviously I don’t actually acquire new time- it’s the same time that I found “hard to find” weeks before.

The same sort of thing happens at home, where my vegetarian girlfriend usually cooks. I can go for long stretches eating her food without noticing the lack of meat (although I obviously did notice it at first). When I then go out to eat, my experience of eating meat seems different. I don’t think it would be that radical to suggest that I enjoy meat more when I have it less regularly.

Common things can almost become invisible and mechanical. Common things increase our tolerance and decrease our attention towards their continuing recurrence. Making common things scarcer makes them seem more ‘special’ and attracts attention to them. Scarce things are noticed and felt more by virtue of their uncommonness. Common things are only similarly noticed in their absence.

There are, I think, a few ways in which your behavior changes. Scarcity draws a lot of attention to itself. That’s the key finding that I think motivates everything. When you’re experiencing scarcity, your mind automatically focuses on that thing. That focus brings benefits, which we talk about. But it has some costs, too [..]

It’s almost too obvious to note that the market operates under a similar logic. But even without the familiar market terms, I expect that this principle was known for a very long time.

I imagine that even very old religious and cultural practices internalize this idea in habitual actions (common) and sacred rites/ceremonies (special). Fasting takes the normality of eating and makes it special through imposed abstinence. Of course, there are other good reasons I could speculate for a religious practice to demand fasting: common suffering/experience maybe, or to protect the tribe from tragedies of the commons during periods where food isn’t abundant (I have no evidence of this one!). It could just be another shibboleth, a way of controlling and identifying true believers from those who are unwilling to suffer to prove loyalty to the tribe through asceticism. And there is no law that says it isn’t a little bit of all of these reasons and many others. Either way, even if they weren’t explicitly spoken of, the idea of changing people’s behaviors towards a thing or action by imposing minimum or maximum limits is probably a dirt-old idea.

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