Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

To the Barricades
August 31, 2012

Cover of "The White Album"

Cover of The White Album

I recently read Joan Didion’s The White Album, which was my first real extended contact with Didion, and my first experience with her explicitly political work. Predictably, it was excellent. Didion can do with remarkable consistency what only the best writers do: cast a sort of shroud of enchantment over the mundane and everyday, making it weird and dreamlike yet still wholly recognizable. You look at the Hoover Dam, orchid breeding, even shopping centers through Didion’s eyes, and sometimes it’s like you’re in the Grimm Brothers’ black woods. (Regarding shopping centers: “If I had a center I would have monkeys, and Chinese restaurants, and Mylar kites and bands of small girls playing tambourine.”)

The force is clearly strong with Joan, which is why I feel slightly embarrassed for thinking of The White Album as a disappointment. It seems like some personal inadequacy on my part, some inability to rise to the book’s challenge. Maybe it’s just my failure to immerse myself in the book’s time and place, to see through my post-Cold War baby narcissism and into the past. Or maybe the climate of 1968 and its immediate aftermath is just something beyond my comprehension. But I can’t read sentences like this and not feel a little let down: “If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.” (more…)

All the Lonely People
April 24, 2012

There’s a whole subgenre of pop sociology and social psychology dedicated to enumerating all of the causes and consequences of the modern American’s crushing loneliness. The latest entry is Steve Marche’s Atlantic article blaming Facebook and other social networking sites for isolating us all from one other, replacing meaningful interaction with pokes and Farmville.*

Sociologist Claude S. Fischer begs to differ. He writes:

Social scientists have more precisely tracked Americans’ isolation and reports of loneliness over the last several decades. The real news, they have discovered, is that there is no such epidemic; there isn’t even a meaningful trend.

If we turned to historians to measure Americans’ degree of isolation over the centuries, they would probably find periods of growing and lessening social connection. The rough evidence indicates a general decline in isolation.

Fischer, being a sociologist with a plethora of empirical research to back him up, seems to have the upper hand here. But if he’s right, then what explains the peculiarly modern anxiety about loneliness? What are we actually anxious about? Will Wilkinson has a theory:

The point is, some of our brightest social theorists seem to over-ready to identify troubling trends or newly urgent problems when there is actually very little evidence of any trend, or that this or that problem has actually deepened. A simple explanation of this sort of error is that we intuitively take our own increasing awareness of a problem as evidence that the problem has become objectively more salient. We should watch out for this.

“Increasing awareness of a problem” is one way of looking at it. A related (and not entirely mutually exclusive) possibility is that we’re seeing something that’s always been true, and, for the first time, turning it into a problem to be solved. Facebook may not make us lonelier, but it certainly promises to salve the loneliness we already carry around with us. Same with other social networking platforms. If we have the theoretical ability to remain in perpetual play and discourse with our friends and loved ones, then what right do we have to be lonely?

Maybe we’re looking at the whole problem backwards. Maybe loneliness isn’t inherently a defect to be fixed by more social interaction. In fact, social interaction can sometimes exacerbate it — even face-to-face meatspace social interaction. In those cases, introspection and solitude can be a balm. A controlled exploration of loneliness may be more healthy, long-term, than resorting to social distraction. You might not be able to construct a permanent bulwark against loneliness, but when it rushes past your defenses you can at least acknowledge it as an old and familiar acquaintance.

This doesn’t sound crazy or counter-intuitive to me. In fact, it sounds pretty obvious. But this whole discussion seems to be predicated on the popular assumption that loneliness is always an enemy from whom you should flee. That assumption, I would argue, is the true epidemic.

*My words, not his. But as far as I can tell, poking and Farmville are both over now.

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Manufacturing Generation Me
April 2, 2012

Cover of "Generation Me: Why Today's Youn...

Cover via Amazon

Two intellectual trends dominate the burgeoning, nonexistent field of Millennials Studies: one is a few years old, but the other one seems to just be catching on. The older trend is, of course, the growing body of work in social psychology purporting to demonstrate that kids these days are more narcissistic than their parents or grandparents. The younger trend is the growing body of work purporting to demonstrate that kids these days will spend the rest of their lives being fucked sideways by the unsustainable economic consumption and political myopia of the Boomer generation. There are reasonable critiques you can make of either of these theories, but I find them both provisionally persuasive — that is, enough to at least entertain the possibility that my age bracket is, statistically speaking, both uniquely solipsistic and uniquely screwed. Which is enough to make a body wonder if there’s any connection between the two phenomena.

So what follows is a blog-sized sketch of how one might go about marrying the two theories. It’s crude, but I think it carries some conceptual force.


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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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.


Shameless Self-Promotion
December 6, 2011

I have a new blog post over at Ms., called H&M Whittles Down Acceptable Body Types To Exactly One. The subject matter is even creepier than the title lets on.

And while we’re on the subject of sexism, Future of the Left’s new EP has the greatest, funniest, most biting song about male misogyny I’ve heard in a good long while:

The Best College Essay Money Can Buy
August 7, 2011

You could base an entire blog around the demented class dynamics that play out in New York Times lifestyle features.* Take this past Friday’s “For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers,” and its utterly dismaying nut graph.

Students preparing to apply to college are increasingly tailoring their summer plans with the goal of creating a standout personal statement — 250 words or more — for the Common Application in which to describe “a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” Specialized, exotic and sometimes costly activities, they hope, will polish a skill, cultivate an interest and put them in the spotlight in a crowded field of straight-A students with strong test scores, community service hours and plenty of extracurricular activities.

For example? [Emphases and annotations my own.]

A dizzying array of summer programs have cropped up to feed the growing anxiety[1] that summer must be used constructively[2]. Students can study health care in Rwanda, veterinary medicine in the Caribbean or cell cloning at Brown University, or learn about Sikkim, India’s only Buddhist state.

Let’s talk about anxiety[1]. Anxiety over what? Some neurotic compulsion to help one’s fellow man? Discover one’s true calling? Better one’s self? Nope: as the nut graph makes clear, this all about one’s need to have a sparkling college application.

Now let’s talk about constructively[2]. If your goal is to get into a good university, what’s constructive about studying veterinary medicine in the Caribbean? Sure, there’s value in studying veterinary medicine if that’s the sort of track you intend to follow in college — but why the Caribbean? What does that signal?

A personal statement about one’s sumer internship in the Caribbean (or Rwanda, or India) might very well signal to admissions officers that the author possesses an unusual amount of intelligence, eloquence, maturity, or civic virtue. But the one thing it is guaranteed to signal is the author’s affluence. Because that shit is expensive, yo.

So basically this is an incredibly costly way to circumvent the ostensible need-blindness of so many elite American universities. Just another competitive advantage for the advantaged. And oddly, the New York Times article on this trend — like so many similar New York Times articles — seems to exist in an alternate universe populated solely by those advantaged and no one else.

Take this gem of a sentence: “Suddenly, the idea of working as a waitress or a lifeguard seems like a quaint relic of an idyllic, pre-Tiger Mom past.” As a matter of fact, working as a waitress** or a lifeguard is still the norm for hundreds of thousands of American teenagers who can’t afford to hit up their parents for textbook money, much less a trip to Nanjing. Lots of people wait tables after college, too. In fact, there are waiters and waitresses working in your home town, at this very instant, who will never attend college. Crazy, right?

If the Times is going to keep feeding its audience wealth porn (and hey, I don’t judge, because there’s clearly a market for that stuff) then it would be nice of them to at least acknowledge the existence of the other 98%.

*In fact, maybe I’ll make a regular thing out of it! 20 points to whichever commenter comes up with the best name for the ongoing post series.

**Aside: dig the unnecessarily gendered noun.

Dwarf Fortress As Art
July 25, 2011

A graphical version of tileset for Dwarf Fortress

Image via Wikipedia

It’s been some years since I’ve sat down and devoted some serious time to a computer game, and I doubt that Dwarf Fortress will be the game to break that streak. The time commitment required to figure out the basic mechanics, let alone play a full game proficiently, looks pretty daunting. But I still read the New York Times Magazine profile of Tarn Adams, the creator of the game, with a great degree of interest — especially those passages that describe how the mechanics of the game reflect Adams’ philosophy of design. By taking that philosophy seriously, I think reporter Jonah Weiner effectively resolves the debate over whether or not computer and video games can be art.

Dwarf Fortress, as Adams describes it, is a “story generator” — character and narrative are constructed by the gamer, but Adams sets the boundaries within which these things may be constructed. How Adams creates and details these boundaries is his art. His craft may seem fundamentally different from that of the novelist or the film director, but I would argue that the distinguishing features are all either superficial technical details or matters of degree and emphasis. The novelist also demands some constructive effort from her audience — it is the reader’s imagination that renders words into action, thought, and sensory experience. What is not written is no less significant.

Omission is also a crucial element of game design. By setting limits on his game world, Adams tells you something about how he views the world — what he thanks can and cannot be achieved. Dwarf Fortress emerges as an astonishingly rich and complex world in which small decisions can change the course of history. But there is no option available to the gamer that would grant him an escape from the hard logic of the game, much less a repreieve from the inevitability death.

If you have five minutes to spare and you want to see the principle I’m describing in action, try downloading Passage. The limitations designer Jason Rohrer imposes on you within the context of that game are absolutely essential to his vision. That vision needs to be experienced to be understood; but I will say that he successfully forces players to experience some basic truths on a visceral, even wrenching, level. Isn’t that exactly what most art is supposed to do?

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Stoicism For the Digital Age
June 14, 2011

Seneca, part of double-herm, Antikensammlung B...

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This is old, but I just stumbled on it last week: Boing Boing’s threepart series on Stoicism, written by philosophy professor William B. Irvine. Irvine is also the author of a book on Stoicism, and his posts for Boing Boing serve as both an introduction to some of the concepts in the book and a pitch for why we all might want to consider becoming Stoics.

I’m fairly persuaded. In fact, I’ve been practicing some Stoic aggravation-management strategies with positive results. But while most of the strategies seem pretty timeless, I can’t help but wonder if a modern-day Stoic wouldn’t face some unprecedented challenges and temptations.

Mostly I’m thinking of social networking. Stoicism prescribes reflection, reserve and abstention from competing for social status. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, et al encourage certain behaviors that would seem to be entirely antithetical to that project. Twitter in particular is pretty bad: it creates a social hierarchy by follower-to-followee-ratio, retweet count, and so on. Playing the game and trying to accumulate more followers is one of its most addictive features. Plus, in order to do so successfully you need to produce as much content as you can. Complaining is a good content production strategy, especially if you figure out a way to do it ironically.*

And it (complaining) is addictive! “Venting” and “blowing off steam” are misnomers, because kvetching isn’t just some sort of release valve to set you back to zero. It’s an engaging, (superficially) rewarding activity in of itself. Once you get a taste, you want to do more of it. And if you have an audience — say your followers — at the ready to validate your complaints, that just ups the opiate quality.

Obviously Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and all the other Roman stoics struggled to various extents with the attractive qualities of status obsession, kvetching and thoughtlessness. Petty bullshit is at least as old as our species, and it will outlast all of us. But social networking, for all of its marvelous blessings, has a way of compounding the incentives to behave in a particularly un-Stoic manner.

That said, this isn’t some kind of cranky, anti-modern rant. Nor do I think it’s impossible to be a Stoic who embraces all of our modern communication tools. Where we run into trouble is when we use these tools without thinking about how they influence our real-world psychology and behaviors. The 21st century Stoic must, at the very least, be mindful of this.

*See also: #firstworldproblems

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