Archive for February, 2012

When the Work Stops Working
February 29, 2012

I have an essay out today in The New Inquiry that is essentially a wide-lens adaptation of the ideas expressed in these two posts. Here’s a taste:

This is the danger of talking about “jobs” in the abstract: It can mean forcing people into precarious, temporary, low-wage, nonexistent-benefit work that will most likely land them back on the welfare rolls in a couple of months. Emphasis here belongs on the word forcing, because employers — faced with an oversupply of labor in the broader job market — have the upper hand in negotiations. These same employers can feel free to deprive their employees of the basic security needed to stay off welfare for good. After all, once the fallow season ends, the state will subsidize those workers’ subsistence until the business community needs them again.

Thus welfare becomes a means of keeping spare workers on ice until they can again be made productive — which is to say, until they can again be slotted into temp jobs. But collecting a welfare check shouldn’t mean forfeiting the right to a baseline of self-determinacy. If welfare is to serve to benefit the poor — which is to say for actual human beings, and not for an abstract intellectual construct such as the Economy — then it should ameliorate domination, not perpetuate it in a modified form.

 Read the whole thing.
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Tucker Annihilation
February 23, 2012

A couple nights ago, Tucker Carlson told Fox News that “Iran deserves to be annihilated.” Nothing to see here; just some standard yuppie pundit chest-beating. But I found his pseudo-mea culpa absolutely fascinating:

It’s my fault that I got tongue tied and didn’t explain myself well last night. I’m actually on the opposite side on the Iran question from many people I otherwise agree with. I think attacking could be a disaster for the US and am worried that Obama will do it, for fear of seeming weak before an election. Of course the Iranian government is awful and deserves to be crushed. But I’m not persuaded we or Israel could do it in a way that doesn’t cause even greater problems. That’s the main lesson of Iraq it seems to me.

See, the problem with declaring war on Iran is that it would be a “disaster” … for the US. It might cause problems. That’s the main lesson of Iraq.

You could argue that this position is less monstrous than the one that tongue-tied Tucker seemed to profess on Fox News. After all, he’s saying that we shouldn’t take actions that would lead to the senseless slaughter of thousands of Iranians. But he’s doing so while also making clear that the lives of those thousands of Iranians are not the main issue. National interest, dammit!

If the “main lesson” of Iraq was really that one should refrain from committing inexpedient atrocities, then no one’s really learned anything. Just remember Tucker’s words the next time he castigates the Iranian government for how poorly they treat Iranians.

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Some Supposedly Fun Links
February 22, 2012

English: David Foster Wallace at the Hammer Mu...

Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday would have been David Foster Wallace’s 50th birthday. I’m not quite the DFW superfan I once was (I haven’t even read The Pale King yet), but I still feel an enormous debt of gratitude to the man. As much as his writing gets accused of being solipsistic or self-involved (often by his old friend and rival Jon Franzen), I’ve always read it as an antidote to solipsism. Okay, so comparing his legacy to that of Dostoevsky is a little hyperbolic, but the two did have similar projects: both were obsessed with finding a way out of the compulsive self-abuse of everydayness and into something approaching real grace and compassion.

Some recommended DFW reading:

The famous “This is Water” speech he delivered at Kenyon University’s 2005 commencement ceremony:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

Jon Baskin on Wallace v. Franzen:

The episode indicates what really united Wallace and Kierkegaard—not, as Franzen implies in “Farther Away,” their narcissism, but rather their profound appreciation of its death grip on the modern self. Central to both was the conviction that narcissism was a matter predominantly of belief, less a defect of personality than a symptom of spiritual vacancy. It was not something that could be addressed by smart social policy, abstract argument or higher-quality news. Perhaps only organized religion had ever checked the narcissism of the contemporary person, for whom the difficulty was not to be sophisticated, cynical and “free,” but to invest herself in some definite course of action. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard had introduced the “knight of faith”—his version of a modern hero—who, he said, would look from the outside “just like a tax collector.” In Pale King, Wallace encourages his sophisticated modern reader to acknowledge the glory of the tax collector, a job that is “truly heroic” because “a priori incompatible with audience or applause”—that is, with narcissism.

Such a definition of heroism may seem sentimental or silly; it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that Wallace meant it.

Big Red Son, one of DFW’s most darkly hilarious nonfiction essays. It also has one hell of an opening:

THE AMERICAN ACADEMY of Emergency Medicine confirms it: Each year, between one and two dozen adult US males are admitted to ERs after having castrated themselves. With kitchen tools, usually, sometimes wire cutters. In answer to the obvious question, surviving patients most often report that their sexual urges had become a source of intolerable conflict and anxiety. The desire for perfect release and the real-world impossibility of perfect, whenever-you-want-it release had together produced a tension they could no longer stand.

It is to the 30+ testosteronically afflicted males whose cases have been documented in the past two years that your correspondents wish to dedicate this article. And to those tormented souls considering autocastration in 1998, we wish to say: “Stop! Stay your hand! Hold off with those kitchen utensils and/or wire cutters!” Because we believe we may have found an alternative.

Every spring, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents awards for outstanding achievement in all aspects of mainstream cinema. These are the Academy Awards. Mainstream cinema is a major industry in the United States, and so are the Academy Awards. The AAs’ notorious commercialism and hypocrisy disgust many of the millions and millions and millions of viewers who tune in during prime time to watch the presentations. It is not a coincidence that the Oscars ceremony is held during TV’s Sweeps Week. We pretty much all tune in, despite the grotesquerie of watching an industry congratulate itself on its pretense that it’s still an art form, of hearing people in $5,000 gowns invoke lush clichés of surprise and humility scripted by publicists, etc.—the whole cynical postmodern deal—but we all still seem to watch. To care. Even though the hypocrisy hurts, even though opening grosses and marketing strategies are now bigger news than the movies themselves, even though Cannes and Sundance have become nothing more than enterprise zones. But the truth is that there’s no more real joy about it all anymore. Worse, there seems to be this enormous unspoken conspiracy where we all pretend that there’s still joy. That we think it’s funny when Bob Dole does a Visa ad and Gorbachev shills for Pizza Hut. That the whole mainstream celebrity culture is rushing to cash in and all the while congratulating itself on pretending not to cash in. Underneath it all, though, we know the whole thing sucks.

Your correspondents humbly offer an alternative.

A review from The Canadian Review of Books that includes a quote DFW loved (and which is often misattributed to him):

Irony, we’re all coming to discover in the Age of Irony, is the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.

And lastly, here’s a review I wrote of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, his book-length conversation with DFW.

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Workers Never Act, But Are Merely Acted Upon
February 19, 2012

Today’s New York Times reports that conditions are improving at China’s infamous Foxconn plant. For this, they credit: Foxconn management for raising salaries and cutting overtime; anonymous “critics” of Foxconn management; “labor rights groups”; an audit by the Fair Labor Association; and, by the transitive property, Apple, for requesting the audit.

Oddly enough, the only people to not get any credit at all are the workers at the plant. This despite the fact that we’re only talking about Foxconn right now because hundreds of the plant’s employees threatened mass suicide in protest of appalling labor conditions.

In other words, that higher pay and reduced overtime is a concession that the workers won through a remarkable act of defiance and solidarity. That sounds like a pretty good story! How odd that the Times decided to tell a different story, in which the workers are merely passive objects. (Even the article’s single oblique acknowledgement of worker agency is framed in the passive tense: “Foxconn facilities in China have experienced a series of worker suicides.” Poor Foxconn facilities!)

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What Is the Question “What Are Women For?” For?
February 18, 2012

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...

The Dude (via Wikipedia)

Now that everyone’s gotten in their shots at James Poulos (including my friend Lisa McIntire, who I think wins the award for both aplomb and bile), I’d like to skip ahead to his follow-up column and zero in on what seems like one of the more toxic premises undergirding this whole exercise (emphasis mine):

Women are largely freer than ever to pursue their life plans without the burden of a moral obligation to center their activity and their ambitions around exercising their unique reproductive capabilities.

Yet the story doesn’t end there. We still argue and wonder about which life plans to choose in a civilization that has greatly and productively loosened the once-intense moral link between women’s fecundity and women’s lives as unique individuals. And one area in which patriarchal dominance has persisted is in privileging some kinds of human pursuits over others. Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger have disapprovingly warned of the apparently natural propensity of men to fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.

Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality. I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men. But this sort of insight is far more circumspect and modest than the central principles of virtually all social conservatives.

While I was in Israel, I heard a Hasidic rabbi — new Hasidic, mind you, with an acoustic guitar and all the affectations of a totally chillaxed SoCal beach bro — make a very similar argument. His intention was to demonstrate to us that the convention of identifying God with the male pronoun “He” wasn’t really sexist or patriarchal, because all it did was link God to the male creator energy. The universe, he argued, had a distinctly female creation energy, which was great for women, because it meant that they were intrinsically closer to their creator — God — than us guys, who don’t hold within ourselves as much of the female creation energy.

According to Rabbi Jack Johnson, the reason why men observe Shabbat — during which time Jews are forbidden from participating in any act of creation — is to become, in a sense, more female, and therefore more receptive to God’s male creation energy. Women don’t have as difficult a time doing this, because they’re already predisposed, but — unfortunately, says the good Rabbi at this point — modern women have absorbed more of the male creator energy in recent years as they’ve taken a greater participatory role in politics, business, and other profane worldly affairs.

I don’t think I’m quite doing justice to how well the Rabbi framed this fundamentally conservative argument in the liberal-values-friendly vocabulary of hippie-dippie-dom. Lucky for us, he betrayed himself by blurting out the word “unfortunately,” thereby disclosing what the real implications of this worldview were. If women want to stay close to God all week — the way men try to get close to God from Friday evening through Saturday afternoon — then they need to abstain from icky male creator acts. You leave all the politicking, horse trading, art-making and craft-working to us menfolk, sweetie. That way it won’t soil your special connection with The Ultimate Manfolkperson.

Thus we see closeness to God become a consolation prize to be awarded to that underclass which Rabbi Duderino wishes barred — either by social convention or other means — from having any direct agency in worldly affairs. Poulos, along with the philosophers he enlists in his cause, appears to be making the same argument. Difference may not presume or ordain inequality, but I’d love to hear what makes this preferred state of affairs anything but deeply unequal.

UPDATE: Elias Isquith (whose blog you should be reading, if you aren’t already) tweets:

some men think if they turn up the “Madonna” and down the “Whore” in their Madonna/Whore complex, they’re feminists

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What is Welfare For?
February 17, 2012

I see Kevin Drum has replied to my criticisms. He writes:

Actually, Resnikoff’s response was pretty weak. Yes, sanctions are penalties. That’s the point: to push people to take jobs when they’re available. And yes, these are mostly low-wage, temporary jobs. But should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down jobs just because they’re temporary? Some of them probably should be, but not all.

The race argument is the only decent one, but Mike didn’t excerpt nearly enough of that in his post to make it clear what’s really going on. Besides, with a race-neutral correlation of .95, there’s really not much room for anything else to have a big effect.

However, I endorse Bill Cat’s suggestion below that anything coming out of Florida should be suspect by default. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this program is worse than it looks on the surface.

A couple small points and then a big one:

First, Drum and I must hold very different understandings of what penalties are supposed to be for. By my lights, the application of a penalty implies that some sort of infraction preceded it. Not only that, but a penalty, justly applied, would be in response to what was understood to be an infraction by both parties under the terms of a prior agreement. So for example: if I break the law, I can rightfully expect some sort of penalty from the state based on our mutual understanding that penalties are what happen to people who break the law.* However, the law and legal repercussions cease to mean a whole lot if the state just arbitrarily punishes me whenever it wants to modify my behavior for whatever esoteric reason. But when it comes to welfare sanctions, Drum seems to not only be fine with that sort of lawlessness, but encourage it.

Second, I’m not quite sure what Drum means when he says it’s not clear that “the race argument” is “what’s really going on.” I assume he means that neither Mike Konczal nor I provided evidence that Florida welfare caseworkers are being maliciously, intentionally racist. And that’s true! But it’s also irrelevant. All that Mike and I are doing is pointing out that the statistical correlation I alluded to earlier becomes stronger in counties with larger African American populations. Here’s the graph:

And now for the big takeaway: these other issues aside, I think my disagreement with Drum comes down to a broader philosophical disagreement about the purpose of welfare. Here’s Drum again, but the emphasis is all mine:

And yes, these are mostly low-wage, temporary jobs. But should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down jobs just because they’re temporary? Some of them probably should be, but not all.

Should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down low-wage, temporary, degrading work that represents only an intermediate step between this welfare check and the next one? Are welfare recipients grown ass adults who should have some say in the way their lives are run? Yes to both.

Let me flip it around and try out a little thought experiment: You’re a welfare recipient in Florida. March is rolling around, which means that soon college kids are going to be flooding in from up north, and local businesses are looking for some temporary work. The money they’re offering is not significantly above that you receive in your regular welfare check — in fact, it might even be a little less. And there is absolutely no chance that the work you do for them might lead to steadier employment. In fact, the only significant that working this job will affect on your life is that you’ll have to do more menial labor, and that you’ll temporarily be at the mercy of a boss instead of a caseworker.

Now here’s the question: Why should you chase after that job? Is there something wrong with you if you choose not to do so? Is the problem with you, or with a policy regime that forces you to pick between two flavors of shit sandwich?

If welfare is to be a social good, it cannot just be a means of putting the spare worker bees on ice until the capitalist class finds them to be of use again.

*Whether the law is just is a question we should bracket. Let’s also bracket the point that penalties are often applied inconsistently and on the basis of socioeconomic status.

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Pity-Charity Indentured Servitude
February 16, 2012

From his “favorite graph of the week,” Mike Konczal discovers, in Florida, “a very strong relationship between sanctioning those on welfare with the needs of local, highly seasonal, labor demand.

In layman’s terms: during the peak tourism months in Florida (when the demand for cheap labor rises to accommodate the influx of tourists), the state is more likely to penalize welfare recipients — for whatever reason — by withholding funds. Thereby, presumably, forcing them to find employment in seasonal, minimum wage jobs.

Cue a very strange response from Kevin Drum:

Still, this is nonetheless pretty persuasive evidence that case workers do, in fact, calibrate sanction levels to the needs of the job market. So my next question is this: is this a bad thing? Mike doesn’t really take a position, though he seems vaguely disapproving. And it’s possible that the details of the sanctioning regime are objectionable. But just in general, is there anything wrong with welfare case workers trying to push clients into the job market when jobs are available, but being more lenient when jobs just aren’t there? Offhand, I’m not sure I see a problem with this.

Drum misses a few things.
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Art Finds a Way to Take Care Of You
February 16, 2012

And these country musics that are just so—you know, “Baby since you’ve left I can’t live, I’m drinking all the time.” And I remember just being real impatient with it. Until I’d been living here about a year. And all of a sudden I realized, what if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing to is themselves, or to God, you know? “Since you’ve left I’m so empty I can’t live, my life has no meaning.” That in a weird way, they’re incredibly existentialist songs. That have the patina of the absent, of the romantic shit on it, just to make it salable… But that if you cock your ear and listen real close—that it’s deep, you know?… That we find, that art finds a way to take care of you, and take part. Kind of despite itself.

– David Foster Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

Valentine’s Day Mix
February 14, 2012

Because why not.

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Blueprints to the Universe
February 13, 2012

In which Slate pulls an old classic out of the archives of the now-defunct Lingua Franca magazine. The topic: an enigmatic millionaire and amateur philosopher who, under the pseudonym “A.M. Monius,” wrote an audacious metaphysical treatise called “Coming to Understanding.” From the article:

“Coming to Understanding” is a remarkable document. As Ermanno Bencivenga observes in his review, in its sheer temerity the work resembles such philosophical landmarks as René Descartes’s Meditations, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. (Bencivenga describes it as “a self-standing piece of reflection which asks to be judged on its own merit.”) With few citations and nary a footnote, the manuscript seeks to provide “a large-scale account of reality, its origin, purpose, and how it hangs together.” The questions it engages are grand: Does reality have a purpose? Why are things intelligible at all?

As a work of metaphysics, “Coming to Understanding” picks up where science leaves off. The purview of science is the world of “contingent beings”—things that might not have existed, or might have been otherwise, such as you, me, electrons, mountains, and the law of gravity. Science strives to explain the nature, properties, and causes of these contingent beings, which as a whole make up our physical reality.
But science does not and cannot explain why there are contingent beings in the first place. That is a question for metaphysics: Why do contingent beings exist? Or, put plainly, why is there something rather than nothing?

In answering that question, A.M. Monius laid out a new vision of the underlying architecture of reality:

“Coming to Understanding” proposes replacing the theists’ God with reality as a whole, or Being. It also advocates replacing God’s personal intention (that contingent beings come to love God) with an impersonal, fundamental good (that contingent beings come to understand the form of Being). Having made these substitutions, A.M. Monius reaches the following conclusion: “Contingent being exists for the sake of the coming to understanding of the form of Being Itself by contingent being.” In other words, “the central theme of the whole drama of reality” is that beings like you and me and A.M. Monius come to understand the purpose and structure of reality.

And as it happens, the purpose and structure of reality are precisely what A.M. Monius has on offer. In sophisticated detail, the last two-thirds of “Coming to Understanding” are devoted to a discussion of categories similar to Aristotle’s, such as the Universal, the Particular, the Spatio-temporal, and the Cognizable. A.M. Monius believes that these categories demarcate the fundamental types of Being and—in light of their interrelations—suggest the purpose of contingent being.

Silly? Maybe a little bit. But what makes A.M. Monius such an intriguing figure — both to myself and, I think, his critics in academia — is his ambition and fearlessness; his willingness to look silly for the sake of answering really big questions. If there are many contemporary analytic philosophers out there who share Monius’ temerity, I haven’t encountered them.* (That said, if you do know of any, please leave their names in the comments.) Maybe it took a precocious amateur to do what no sane, reputation-conscious academic would ever attempt.

I often miss these grand projects, unrepentant skeptic that I may be. Regardless of whether you think they describe anything true about the universe — regardless, in fact, of whether you believe there’s any such thing as a metaphysical fact — they at least give you a different lens through which to view the world. Think of it as accidental phenomenology.

*Some philosophy nerds would probably point to On What Matters, but Parfit’s subject matter there is limited to ethics.

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