After a couple years of experimentation, writing articles for an online audience, I find myself grasping for what more to give. There are some themes, ideas, which if I happen to keep being alive to explore, I will. But for the first time I find myself at a loss. How to be concrete about ephemeral ideas. Isn’t that what a lot of non-fiction is? Isn’t an opinion an ephemeral idea? In any case, it’s why I’ve always preferred to explore ideas in fictional worlds where the opinions can form a more nuanced tapestry. But there are obviously others who know what spins, what clicks on sites like this Medium. Or, at least, these are people who have found a way to sell ideas as concrete properties.
It is good that they do so, since every decent idea needs a competent salesman. Yet as a person adverse to the competency of our conversions, sales tactics (morals, ethics, the ever increasing terror of our competency, the terror of seeing wrong where there should be right. Evil, where good should be) one has to wonder if (I, one) was built faulty.
I’ve been thinking about competency for some years now. Once, while biking to my job, an idea came over me so powerfully that I had to stop my peddling and sit on the curb. Looking back, this almost strikes me as silly, childish; for the idea that touched me in that moment is not one that I can look back on with clarity. In its most basic form it is this: that all the competency in the world will not validate history. The reductionist function of this argument might be something like; the AR-15 or the nuclear bomb or global warming. The radicalized efficiency of our competencies seem primed at any moment to bite us in the ass. But like I said, this is the reductionist viewpoint. Approaching uni-bomber type levels of fanaticism. Anti-technology rhetoric. Isn’t competence, at its core, one of the great human achievements? It’s partially why so much climate change activism lately has struck me as absurd. Kinda lame. Like this video of protesters blocking the entrance to a McDonalds. I couldn’t tell you the last time I ate at a McDonalds, but I ate at a Subway a couple weeks ago and I know that’s not better. Probably nothing is. Which is what confuses me about protesting this kind of efficiency. It goes so much deeper than cows or cars. It’s our compulsion to be useful.
The more complexly critical view of competence was something that I tried to tackle in a play I wrote titled How to Build a Spaceship. An eccentric entrepreneur brings a cache of young people to a compound with the promise that if they give some time from their life, some labor, he will provide room and board, materials. And together they will try and build a spaceship. I first had this idea after a brief infatuation with the Mars One program. I tried for a couple years to turn it into a serious novel and only realized, after writing paragraph after paragraph of bad philosophical dialectic, that the idea was really a comedy. Because who would actually show up for a mission like this? Probably, like the people who were interested in Mars One, people like me, people who were under-qualified, naive. English and communications majors.
That’s just a little background because I wanted to include the opening monologue of the play. It is probably not a good way to start a play (difficult for an actor to pull off) but the competency idea seemed so complex to me, I wanted to give a distinct introduction to the the why and how of exploring this as a theme. The play begins with the entrepreneur speaking to the crew sitting down on the stage.
The Entrepreneur (WILL):
Hello crew. I wanted to introduce myself, on our journey together here. I am, in fact, THE MONEY, as it were. The apartments you will be sharing, and the warehouse to work in; they are here only because of some small, insignificant choice I made to invest my father’s money.
(WILL does an embarrassed, self conscious, cough, touching of the face.)
Well, I should say that me being the money does not make me your boss, whatever direction and leadership you should choose to accept will come from our brilliant resident Engineer who is not with us now, because for him, parties are I think claustrophobic
or something. But right, anyway you shouldn’t see me much or if you do it’s not by design, this isn’t a hierarchy. One thing you have to remember is to enjoy yourselves. Yes you are here for a purpose, we all are.
(The Entrepreneur pauses in the spotlight)
But what is purpose, especially in a sentient being which must inevitably consider its own death. I’ve been thinking a lot about living recently, which has caused me to consider again death: Death.
(WILL waves his hands, making subtle ghost sounds. He is walking in and out of the spotlight.)
We are bodies built to die yes, but why do we die? One might say it’s a function of our programming. The logical conclusion of reproduction. But in our age this function is not enough, because it is not a function of choice … so which function must we value when contemplating our mortality?
(Takes a slug from the can)
To be useful, to do things, this is our programming, and it is WHY WE DIE. Make no mistake, the history of your competency, how worried you are about being useful is tied to a desire to die.
A YOUNG CREWMEMBER: (giggles/snorts)
WILL: (points downwards at young crew member)
You get it. I am the money that’s why I get to lecture when I want to, and that doesn’t make me honest, or anymore honest than your intentions to BE HERE. Yes, yes, we are, here, we are doing something for you you know. But you have to remember that to reach the stars we have to again orient ourselves, ah you see that word, it’s coming around now. This is your orientation. My version of it anyway, done sloppily, but there is something useful to this formality in that now you may understand my integrity to not doing this project in a traditional way.
(WILL drinks from the can, this time with a sip)
We are here to build a spaceship.
The Crew: (cheers and claps with confused enthusiasm)
I have promised you room and board, and I think that this is a very good deal, because in exchange I’ve gotten contracts for your time …
(hurries through this phrase)
which is really the only commodity that any human being has.
Now, before I completely forget everything … I have to say to you, I know it’s not coherent that comes later, for now I just need you to … think in a different way. I’m going to invite you to ponder, this night and the night’s that come after …
The history of competency. History, competence. That’s what history does it values competence. It’s why your high school history teacher always said that damned stupid moralist phrase “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
As if there was nothing at all positive in the ways things used to be done. But this is no ‘big deal’. It just means that like it or not that universal relativism, that relativism in your gut that you’re trying to overcome by being here, I mean politics how it all seems unbeatable and relative. Like it or not relativism will always exist as long as competence is valued through history. A person should be competent only for themselves, not because some goal is arbitrarily attached at the end. But what are we to do then, with our personal histories?
I wrote that last question as a one-off. Yet as the years have progressed since I wrote it, looking back, I can say that I’ve tried other avenues to answer it. The problem with competence is that sometimes we don’t see the side effects of our goals … but without goals it’s difficult to relate the individual experience. The Competency Conundrum.
After a recent viewing of the movie Ad Astra, a movie I enjoyed very much in no small part because of the things I thought about after watching it, I wondered to myself if it was even a good idea for human beings to ever go to space. This was the question the movie raised in me and I think I enjoyed this question because I’ve always been positive on team space. Any piece of art that can make one question a preconceived notion is valuable to me. The movie is subtle in its critique but more honest about the potential misgivings, consequences, than what most sci-fi imaginations want to be.
The problem, as I see it however, is without space; where would we go from here? We each have some desire to leave a mark, to explore ourselves, our own competences; yet what if this is truly the most tragic part at the core of human endeavor? Overpopulation, expansion, desire.
Still, what else is there?
I’m going to be lazy and end with another monologue from the play (since it’s already written).
BEN (a crew member)
I won’t argue, most imagination is dull when it comes down to it. Like why I want to go to space. I think of a spaceship as a big hermitage. I mean, I know I’m a non-believer in the specifics of God, but I’ve never lost the feeling that there is great wisdom in religious tradition, in just being. But the monastic life needs fuel for imagination, and I have no desire to submit to the imaginative ideas of the past. In fact, to do so makes me nervous and restless. My imagination is too far gone into the future. Where …
(He looks above the heads of the audience.)
I can wake, look out a window and see space and stars, feel in my gut my motion through it, daydream, about black holes and infinity.