Eris and the anomaly

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After the Judgment of Paris and the Trojan War, the golden apple with καλλίστῃ ("For the most beautiful one") didn't just vanish, but surfaced time and again -- with the same tendency to provoke strife and discord. And things got steadily more complex, with more and more contestants: goddesses other than the three who were at the wedding saying "what am I, chopped liver?", Paris looking in the mirror and deciding to compete rather than judge, Helen asserting her own agency ("'the most beautiful woman in the world' should be more than just a bribe -- count me in!").

By the late 20th century, Helen's and Paris' entries had opened the gate for a flood of mortals to compete (via "play-ins", aka beauty contests); the gods had successfully sued for eligibility under anti-discrimination law; multi-culturalism led to the inclusion of gods goddesses and mortals of different cultures; the trans liberation movement had removed gender restrictions ... in short it was kind of a mess.

Finally everybody decided "let's give the apple back to Eris and let her deal with it." Enough time had passed that she had gotten over the snub, and even though it was all a misunderstanding (she had really intended the apple as a wedding gift to the bride!), she had to admit that the law of unintended consequences had kicked in with a vengeance, and she really did have some responsibility here. So she accepted the challenge.

Of course Eris was not being wholly altruistic. For quite a while, she had been working to overcome her bad rap as goddess of strife and discord -- in her view the strife and discord were people's reaction to the unexpected events she introduced or highlighted. Discussions with other tricksters (immortal and mortal, at conferences, clubs, and consciousness raising sessions -- and sometimes in bed) helped her realize that she wasn't the only one with this kind of issue ... maybe this would be a useful experiment.

Taking into account that her privileged position as a goddess might bias her viewpoints, as well as how others interact with her, Eris realized that she shouldn't try to handle this all by herself herself. So she decided to enlist a mortal (reminding herself as always to avoid the elitist attitude of thinking of them as "mere mortals") ... an anomaly. The anomaly came from a different tradition, and wasn't generally wild about Greek gods and goddesses, but was open-minded and willing to discuss.

"How did it all go so wrong?" the open-minded anomaly asked Eris.

"So many places, but especially where Zeus picked the judge. Paris was easily bribable and a conformist but he was so elitist and such a guy -- what could be more cliche than picking the woman who everybody describes as "the most beautiful in the world" as your bribe? But I don't blame Paris so much, after all he was just a mere ... I mean, he was in many ways a reflection of the societal attitudes of his time."

"In other words, Zeus picked somebody a lot like him."


The anomaly had got a lot of other things going on in her life, but this seemed like an interesting project, so she decided to work on this too. She mulled about it for a while, and eventually she ran into me. Unsurprisingly, I was intrigued too.

Over the course of a couple decades, with the help of more than a few hints, I finally started to realize some of what was going on here. Helping Eris with this problem seemed like the kind of journey that only a Fool would embark on, so naturally I found it intriguing. Even better, it seemed to fit in with a bunch of ideas that we and others were groping towards: the possibility of using the energy of desire for societal change, the performativity of beauty and gender, the power and necessity of art and seduction, approaches to getting people to work together more effectively rather than falling into strife and/or discord.

We started coordinating our efforts. Individually and together, we did all kinds of amazing, incredible, wonderful things -- often working with others, sometimes helping to lead and always trying to contribute, stretching our minds while having tons of fun in the process ... and falling more and more deeply in love with each other.

Coming at it from the theory side, I naturally explored intersectional feminism, pure multiplicity, situationism, critical legal theory (since this was after all a "judgment"), epistemology, aesthetics, and many more underlying abstract approaches to the question. Coupling theory with practice, I took every opportunity to investigate the question first hand -- hanging out with (which usually meant being seduced by, and sometimes seducing, and very occasionally falling in love with) people who were "beautiful" in many different senses of the world, trying to participate in multiple tantric cycles, and learning about the limits of analysis.

One night, in the midst of a timely Kundalini awakening, while out dancing to psytrance, a question popped into my mind:

Why settle for singularity when you can have multiplicity?

After meditating on this for a few months, I felt like I had gotten to the point where I thought I had started to understand it -- and could even explain it. Maybe. Kind of. At least a little. Naturally, the first person I talked about it with was the anomaly.

"You know how whenever we're out dancing I always wind up saying 'I left with the best-looking woman in the place'? That means that one answer to καλλίστῃ is ... you."

"Me? You're biased."

"It seems to me that a lot of other people agree with me ... but okay, given my desire to worship the anomaly it is indeed possible that I'm biased. But note that I said 'one answer'. If you combine this with the idea of multiplicity ..."

"Let me guess: you've got a meta solution."

"Indeed. Everybody's biased; and there are so many different kinds of beauty, so many different standards, so much subjectivity ... it seems to me that everybody can be the most beautiful, from at least some perspectives, in at least some senses of the word."

"Hmm. Let me mull on this, and let's discuss further."

"Sounds good. It's not like I think this solves everything ... one open question that leaps to mind: what should Eris do with the damn apple?"

So she mulled, and we discussed and refined. It's never easy to calibrate feedback from a goddess, but it seemed like Eris seemed pleased by this idea and encouraged us to continue. So we did ... back to absorbing discussing and creating and blurring the lines between theory (tantra, network theory, queer theory, cyberfeminism, cultural studies, post-subculture studies, anomaly standpoint theory) and practice (all of the above, plus tarot, go, panopticism, sousveillance, activism, rethinking computer science, Seducersworld, poeticizations, Burning Man, free association as well as other kinds of social networking and social bookmarks, and on and on.

Finally I came up with a suggestion for Eris.

"I think that καλλίστῃ is performative." She rolled her eyes, and I hurriedly continued "... by which I mean, you giving the apple to somebody means that they become the most beautiful -- as long as they act that way."

"Act that way?"

"Yeah, well, that part is underdefined ... at a minimum, it's acting in accordance with human rights; and since this is based on multiplicity, respecting and valuing and appreciating differences -- after all, we're all anomalies in our way. Beyond that, it's probably different for everybody. Your mileage may vary, but at least from my perspective, I think some of the key things include deciding to choose hope, desire, and pride, try to create oneself as a work of art, being excellent to each other, and of course respecting and valuing the anomaly."

She thought about it for a while, and agreed that it might make sense. "So should I give the apple to the anomaly?"

"Thanks for the offer ... but she doesn't need it; she already is the most beautiful in so many senses of the word. And anyhow, it's potentially true for everybody, so as much as I worship her, I don't think it's right to give it just to one person ... or goddess. I think you should give it to everybody."

"Oh please. I might be a goddess, but golden apples don't grow on trees."

"Eris! It's the 21st century! If you put it up on the web, you'll give it to a billion people -- and if you Creative Commons license it, then people will find thousands of different ways of giving the apple to each other, remix, recombine, recontextualize, and in general let a billion apples bloom!"

Somewhat to my surprise, Eris didn't yet have a web site; and while I offered to help her set one up, and even teach her basic HTML editing, it was hard to argue with her position that she had better things to do. Besides, as she pointed out, if it was her site, that would give the impression that only she could cause somebody to become the most beautiful; and since everybody already is the most beautiful (as long as they decide to act that way), it would be better for everybody to realize that no goddesses are necessarily required for this "transformation". And on top of that, it turns out she's a fan of Illuminatus! and INWO (she enjoys playing the Gnomes of Zurich), so she likes the URL here.

And so, with the assistance and encouragement of the goddess Eris and the open-minded anomaly I worship, I hereby pronounce whoever sees an image of the golden apple -- or the word καλλίστῃ or any translation thereof -- the most beautiful ...


... as long as you act that way.