Guest Spots: Rabbits’ rat-filled allegory of cooperation

By Kyle Gilkeson
June 27, 2011
Rabbits: Lower FormsRabbits: Lower Forms (Relapse, 2/15/11)

Rabbits: “Duck The Pigs”

[audio:|titles=Rabbits: “Duck The Pigs”]

Portland, Oregon-based sludge-rock trio Rabbits isn’t big on accessibility. Its music — heavily distorted, brutally noisy — is polarizing, as the extensive catalog of reviews on the band’s website reveals. Its name — generally stylized in all caps — is topped off with an inverted R on the cover of its newest record, Lower Forms. There’s not much of a back story or many illuminating interviews, so a lot of people don’t seem to “get” Rabbits. If you’re in the camp that believes you don’t really need to know the drummer’s dog’s name to enjoy its music, read on, and see what Rabbits and rats have in common.

Why Rat?
by Rabbits

Rabbits sings songs about science. Science, like philosophy (the two are difficult to disentangle and once were one in the same), is about explaining what goes on in the world. How do we explain Rabbits?  Tricky. We can tell you this: you would not even be reading about Rabbits right now were it not for cooperation that goes on in the Portland punk and metal scene. All for one and one for all. Why do you think Portland has such a long tradition of sick, heavy, scuzzy, musical weirdos? Cooperation. And science has a lot to say about cooperation.

Once upon a time, a man named Axelrod hosted a contest in a computer. You could send in a strategy to play a game called The Prisoners’ Dilemma.  The game is this: Two prisoners arrested for the same crime must each decide whether or not to rat the other out…without knowing what the other will do.  The smartest thing to do is rat if you don’t want to get totally fucked, so both should rat.  But it certainly would be a whole lot cooler if both kept their stupid mouths shut instead of both being good-for-nothing rats.

In the contest, each strategy played every other strategy over and over. The twist on the game was that a player could remember what others had done when they played together before and use that knowledge to (perhaps) make better decisions.  The computer kept score for the whole contest, and a strategy called “Tit-for-Tat,” sent in by one Anatol Rapoport, won.  Tit-for-Tat is simple.  Start out by keeping your mouth shut.  Be nice.  Then do whatever the other did last time: If the other kept mum, then you keep mum; but if the other ratted, then you rat to put that dirty little rat in his place.  Punish!  Oh, decided to shut its mouth again?  Shut yours as well — we must forgive.  (But don’t necessarily forget, remember?)

Tit-for-Tat doesn’t always do the best with everyone.  A full-time rat will always beat nice Tit-for-Tat, and Tit-for-Tat is pretty simple, so it can screw up or be taken advantage of.  But overall, it works pretty well.  How well?  Good enough to win the contest, friend.  And guess what?  Years later, Axelrod had another contest (in another computer), and even though he told everyone that Tit-for-Tat won the first one…Tit-for-Tat won again!  How about that?

Computers.  Anyway, one P. Kropotkin, a Russian prince no less, noted that real rats take care of their young and sick, and are also smart enough not to fight while stealing shit.  One Sergio Pellis found that real rats mostly play fair, and when a rat doesn’t play fair, that rat gets punished (as appropriate) by the other rats, but is (usually) eventually forgiven (as appropriate). Rats-for-rats’ sake, so to speak.  One Jaak Panksepp thinks fair play may please rats, i.e. it seems to get them high.  In a fiction by one Victor Pelevin, a rat called One-Eye (so-called because he sees through his third eye) tells Hermit and Six-Toes that the other rats know of a pipe that leads deeper and deeper down into the earth and eventually to another universe.  That, of course, is make-believe.  When one John Calhoun created a universe for mice (who are a bit like rats) with unlimited food and water but limited space, the mice ate and fucked until they all became completely antisocial and eventually died.  Rats also carry diseases that kill people.

It ain’t easy being a rat.  Still, when rat, you may on occasion wish to ask yourself, “Wherefore art thou, rat?”  Rat to help or rat to hurt?  Then again, sometimes a rat is just a rat.  And rabbits just rabbits.

By Kyle Gilkeson June 27, 2011
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