Friday, November 28, 2008

Some Things Are Better Than Funny

I recently finished reading Jincy Willett's Winner of the National Book Award. I selected this book at the store with trepidation, because almost all the comments on the back of the book were things like "A wonderful dark comedy! Hilarious!" "Very dark and very funny! Excellent book!" and "This black comedy will have you rocking in your chair with laughter!"

It's never good when the best thing you can say about something is that it's a "dark comedy." Fortunately, Jincy Willett's book is much better than all this suggests, mostly because it's not really a dark comedy at all. It's just a light-hearted and humorous treatment of some troubling and real life things.

I think people like to say "dark comedy" when they encounter something that is clearly troubling that is presented in anything less than a tragic way. It's like they think that to praise a work of art that treated a subject like rape or murder in anything but tragic terms would somehow make them into moral cretins or something. So they weasel out by saying "dark comedy."

I see this at the opera all the time and it drives me crazy. You know, a lot of those comic operas, like Così fan Tutte and Don Giovanni have a lot of serious parts in with the wise-cracking, flirting, and general swaggering around. Così fan Tutte is about the fleetingness of love. Don Giovanni is about a seducer, manipulator, and rapist who refuses to repent and goes to hell. So it's weird to have the audience guffawing like they're at a showing of the movie Dodgeball.

The genius of these operas is that they interweave the funny and the tragic together. But the audience—and even the directors—treat them as "dark comedies," and it just isn't right. At a recent performance of Don Giovanni I attended, the director staged the performance so that it seems like that Don Giovanni's first victim, Donna Anna, is complicit; then it seems kind of funny later when she is in an angry rage about what happened. But actually, he's had his way with her, against her wishes. And this is back when a sex act was a sex act, people! The servant Leporello, who tries to tell his master that what is is doing is wrong, is treated as a buffoon, making his complaints seem like whines.

The audience thought it all a laugh riot. Look at that Donna Anna, so upset! Leporello, so distraught! Donna Elvira's going to spend the rest of her life in a convent? Ha ha ha! Hilarious!

As I said, Jincy Willett's novel is better than a dark comedy. It's a light and occasionally amusing treatment of the age old human tragedies: life, death, love, sex, jealousy, manipulation, murder. It's not a laugh-riot. Thank heaven.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Culture Entropy Problem

We all know English sounds better when spoken by a native French-speaker.

But it's also true that English spoken by a native French speaker sounds better than both English spoken by a native English-speaker and French spoken by a native French speaker.

For all its elegance and mellifluousness, French on its own has a kind of pedantic, donnish quality to it. French encourages complete sentences and precise word choice. It discourages one-word wisecracks and creation and appropriation of words like "wassup" or "bling."

For all its lively spontaneity, English on its own has a kind of flat and passive sound to it. You can make the sounds with a minimum of mouth effort, and the vowel sounds, they're just kind of not that great.

But you put the French sounds together with the English words and voilà! Instant cool.

A lot of things are like this: putting together two really different things makes something better.

On the one hand, that's something I love about American culture and about the English language: both have built into them a kind of flexibility and openness to what is new. You got something new, fun interesting? Hip-hop, you say? Drinking espresso out of little cups in coffeehouses? "Extreme beers"? We'll take it! Sign us up!

It's the opposite of the traditionalist impulse, like that behind the French Academy who oversee language use and decide what is and isn't a real "French" word.

On the other hand, here's where I get tripped up, because without French being what it is, there would be no interesting mix of French and English. Really, many of the best new things come from mixes between things that are really different to start with. But there won't be much in the way of different things for very long without that traditionalist impulse kicking in at least occasionally.

It's a culture entropy problem. You let the hot and the cold mix together and what do you got? "Lukewarm," I suppose. Which isn't very interesting.

So members of the French Academy? Knock yourselves out, I guess.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Equal But Better

One thing I think about all the time is that scene from The Breakfast Club where the nerdy guy, played by Anthony Michael Hall, confronts the snobby girl, played by Molly Ringwald, with the question of what's going to happen Monday morning.

You may remember that having started out as archetypes from different cliques and teenage modes, they spend that Saturday coming to some kind of shared understanding and fellow feeling.

At that particular point in the movie, the mood is one of "Different, But Equal": they've all realized they have their own problems in life, and they're starting to think none of them is really better than any other of them, that there are just different ways of life and all of them are difficult. But at that point, there's still no sharing. Not yet. It's more like, "Oh, we are all trapped in our own bubble-lives!"

And then the nerd drops his bombshell by asking the snob about Monday. He challenges her to say she'll talk to him on Monday morning, and of course, she can't really say she will, 'cause her princessy friends will castrate her if she does something so uncool and so ridiculous.

She makes some lame half-assed attempt to explain—as least as I remember it, after all these years—and then the nerdy guy says something like, "Well, I guess my friends and I really are better people than your friends and you. We would never hesitate to talk to you. But you won't talk to us. So you're snobs."

And he's right. Sure, there are different ways of life and all of them are difficult. But some ways of life are better than others—not more fun but actually morally superior.

Talk of "cultural relativism" or "moral relativism" always gets people wound up in both directions but when I hear those words I always think about Anthony Michael Hall, 'cause it seems to me his view sums up how everyone feels when they reflect on their own ways of life.

Sure, there are different ways of doing things. If you want to do things your way, I ain't gonna stop you. But my way, the way I do things? It's actually better.

So it's not really "Different, But Equal," but more "Equal, But Better." Which doesn't make any sense, logically, but that doesn't seem to really get in anyone's way.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Times Discovers Virtual Worlds Are Not For Everyone

Quote of the day:
“It’s hard to say what, if anything, Linden Lab can do to make Second Life appeal to a general audience,” wrote Eric Krangel, who used to report on Second Life as Eric Reuters. “The very things that most appeal to Second Life’s hardcore enthusiasts are either boring or creepy for most people” (from Google Unplugs Lively as Hype Fades Over Virtual Worlds).
Well. I have no doubt that Second Life can be boring and creepy for most people. Among SL's dull activities, Mr. Krangel lists "trying to sell virtual clothes, experimenting with new genders or species and chatting with strangers."

OK. Fine.

On the other hand, what's so great about real life? You're going to put "experimenting with new genders or species" in SL next to "drinking coffee" and "going for a walk" in RL and find RL more interesting?

Since SL involves interacting with and talking to actual other people, this has gotta be read as major evidence for the inherent interestingness of the material world. Like, the sheer fact of something having material existence makes it more interesting somehow.

I don't know what this means for the concept of "heaven," but it's clearly nothing good.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Department Of Overreactions

I wish I had something intelligent to say about this.

A faculty member at the University of California, Irvine is refusing to take a sexual harassment training course—a course required by law in California for anyone who supervises a certain number of employees, and a course that takes about two hours. He's probably going to lose his job over this in the end.

So, what's the deal? I kept thinking there was more to the story than what I'd read online, but today the guy has an opinion piece in the LA Times explaining his reasons. Honestly, it still makes no sense to me.

He says the training is dumb. OK, but employers require people to do all kinds of dumb things, don't they? That's just not much of a reason.

He says the training requirement is a capitulation to a special interest group he doesn't agree with, and that taking it would interfere with his academic freedom. Academic freedom? This seems far-fetched to me. He's welcome to speak out about how dumb it is and write editorials for the LA Times complaining about it. He's welcome to protest the law. Anyway he's a molecular biologist.

At most he might object here that the training requires him to say things he doesn't believe, like "I know exchanging sexual favors is morally wrong," or, more plausibly, "I will report to the authorities anyone I suspect of sexual harassment." If that's the complaint I'd be willing to listen but he doesn't mention anything like that in his editorial.

What he does mention, and what he clearly is upset about, are the "insinuations . . . and the potential stigma" associated with taking the course. Amazingly, he says he agreed to take the course if the university would sign a letter saying that the fact that he had to take the course in no ways means that he is suspected of sexual harassment or that they have reason to think he is a harasser.

But this makes no sense. If it's a law that everybody in a supervisory role has to take the course then how could it possible cast a stigma on him personally to have to take the course? It doesn't; it wouldn't; it couldn't.

Of course, he's now managed to cast just such a stigma on himself by refusing to take the course for what seem like such weak reasons. All I can think reading his editorial is, there's gotta be some other reason, some real reason, something else going on that he isn't mentioning.

This guy may have a point, but so far he hasn't convinced me that he isn't just overreacting to being told to do something he doesn't want to do.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Two Self-Help Lies

Two days ago I was feeling blue and I went out and bought new pair of shoes. And you know what? It cheered me up.

If you believe the self-help establishment, this sort of thing never happens. They'll always tell you that indulging in bad habits and material pleasures will never make you feel better. Have you noticed this?

The party line is that if you have a problem with eating sweets, and you eat sweets, you think it will make you feel good, when in fact it will make you feel worse; if you have a problem with drinking, or smoking, or spending money, you might think that doing those things would make you feel good, but you'd be wrong.

As far as I can tell, this is just false.

I mean, you might not be best off in the long run for indulging in bad habits. Sure. That's what makes them "bad habits."

But that's something we all know. Nobody needs someone to tell them that their future selves will be best off if they refrain from eating cookies every afternoon and drinking that extra glass of wine every evening and spending money they don't have on new pairs of shoes every weekend.

No, the establishment "news" is supposed to be that the indulgence itself won't make you feel better—not even, like, over the next few hours. You'll feel worse.

Sorry, but while it might be nice if the world worked this way, if good and bad were all black and white like that, the angel in the broccoli and the devil in the Mars bar, and we humans just all confused about which one is worth wanting and which one isn't.

But that's just not the way it is. In my experience, buying stuff is actually fun, and it actually makes you feel happy. Eating high-carbohydrate snacks in the afternoon? It's wonderful. It floods your brain with sucrose and you feel good. The extra glass of wine? You don't have to be a rocket scientist to have figured out that people actually enjoy these things.

It's just silly to pretend otherwise. I don't know who these people think they're kidding.

The other big lie about bad habits is that you indulge in them because you don't respect yourself. This makes no sense to me either. I mean, it's because I have a robust sense of my intrinsic worth that I believe I ought to have these pleasures. I deserve those shoes. I deserve the Mars bar, the extra glass of wine. I'm me, and I get to.

The problem that leads to indulging isn't that you don't care enough about yourself. If anything, the problem that leads to indulging is that you don't care enough about your future self. She's the one who is going to be diabetic and broke with liver disease. But that's an excess of self-regard, not a lack. It's your poor future-self who's getting shafted.

I don't know what to do about the problem of feeling good now versus feeling good later or not caring enough about our future selves. But this campaign of misinformation has got to stop.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Britney On The Monotony Of Everyday Life

It kills me that in discussing her life these days, Britney Spears recently said,
"There’s no excitement, there’s no passion. I have really good days, and then I have bad days. Even when you go to jail you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out. But in this situation, it’s never ending. It’s just like Groundhog Day every day. […] I think it’s too in control. If I wasn’t under the restraints I’m under, I’d feel so liberated. When I tell them the way I feel, it’s like they hear but they’re really not listening."
If you didn't know she was talking about the very particular circumstances of being under her father's "permanent control," you could read this as a totally articulate and elegant complaint about the monotony of everyday life.

"It's just like Groundhog Day every day." It's true! For most people, everyday life really is like Groundhog Day. You wake up, you do the same things you did yesterday, eventually the day ends, and you go to bed.

"Even when you go to jail there's the time when you're gonna get out." There's no denying it. Unlike temporary sucky situations, the monotony of everyday life has no end.

"When I tell them the way I feel, it's like they hear but they're not really listening." Uh-huh. I don't believe in God, myself, but if I were to say something about the forces that control the universe, that about sums it up. It's like they hear, but they're not really listening.

"I have really good days, and then I have really bad days." That really says it all.

Britney Spears, accidental philosopher of everyday life. Who knew?

Monday, November 17, 2008

My Life Force Goldilocks Problem

My problem with the life force is the Goldilocks problem: it's too much, or it's too little, but it's never just right.

For me, feeling good about life leads immediately to the most persistent, attention-demanding, and unsatisfiable desires. When I'm happy, all I can think about is how I want to start exercising twice as much and get super-fit and buy all new clothes and get a new convertible sports car to drive around in and get a crazy new hairstyle and be a famous philosopher and make lots of extra money and write an amazing novel and always wear the coolest high-heel shoes, always, always.

It's fun but it's exhausting and I think to myself, "Well. Wouldn't it be nice to be a little less in the way of wanting things? To want, you know, a more modest list of things?

And then I get my wish: the intensity fades, the sports car seems silly; the new hairstyle seems impractical; the novel-writing seems ridiculous. I resolve to spend my time on sensible pursuits, to enjoy the good things in life in moderation.

You'd think this would be an improvement, but it never is, because the only thing worse than wanting things is not wanting things. As soon as I don't have all these crazy desires, I'm back on the sofa, thinking to myself, "What is the point of all this, exactly? To muddle through and then get weak and frail and then die?" Boy is that worse than daydreaming about impossible things you'll never have.

It's either the Papa bear of too much, or the Mama bear of too little, but clearly if there's not going to be any "just right," I gotta choose "too much" 10 times out of 10.

When you think about it this way, our American extreme consumer culture seems less strange and surprising. It's not just the shopping that allows us to avoid thinking about death, even the not-shopping allows us to avoid thinking about death. As long as it's not-shopping together with a lot of intense, regretful longing.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

What Is A Morally Offensive Picture?

There's a good piece in a recent New Yorker about psychopaths. In true New Yorker style, it tells you a whole bunch of things you didn't know you wanted to know about psychopaths: that psychotherapy used to distance itself from the concept of psychopathy, that the test for diagnosing a psychopath is recently designed and copyrighted — like, the guy gets royalties — and that psychopaths make people's skin crawl for real.

One thing in this article, however, mystified me. Part of the story is about how the use of MRIs of psychopaths in prison is revolutionizing the understanding of psychopathy, and the reporter decides to take the relevant test himself. He gets into the scanner, and then has to rate a bunch of images according to how "morally offensive" they are on a scale of one to five.

The pictures include a bloody baby, Osama bin Laden, a man on the ground with his face beaten in, and two guys "inadvertently" butting heads in a soccer game.

Our reporter hesitates. At first he thinks the baby rates high, but then he realizes it's a birth and gives it zero. At first he thinks the soccer game guys rate zero, but then gives it a one because "perhaps a foul was called." He's mystified by the bin Laden picture, and properly so, but eventually gives it a four. Only the guy on the ground can he judge with confidence: this gets a five.

When I read that I was like, WTF? If the baby could be a birth, then the guy on the ground could be a morally neutral victim of an accident. On the other hand, how can you tell from a photo the head butt is inadverant? Could be the result of racist trash-talking, made to look like an accident. And Osama bin Laden??

The problem is that pictures aren't morally charged, narratives and interpretations are. You can't ask people to rate pictures for being morally offensive; it just doesn't make any sense.

The New Yorker points out that the logical conclusion of all this research is the whole looking-into-people's-brains-to-see-whether-they're-criminals thing. It would be good to get this whole picture-versus-interpretation thing sorted out before we get all into that. OK?

Friday, November 14, 2008

When Is A Delusion Not A Delusion?

The New York Times ran a story on Thursday about a subculture of people who have used the internet to find like-minded others and to form a community.

These are people who believe—falsely, it is suggested—they are being mind-controlled, mentally stalked, and otherwise tormented by covert and sinister forces. The article draws an analogy between this community and the community of people who, in the 1990's, believed that they had been abducted, and usually sexually stimulated, by aliens.

In each case, an otherwise irrational belief gets support from the fact that other people believe the same thing. The point of the article is that the internet community is encouraging participants to believe that their crazy beliefs—that they are being monitored, watched, manipulated from afar—are true, when in fact they are false.

As a philosopher I couldn't help wondering: So, um, how do we know these people are delusional, and not just, you know, better informed than the rest of us? I mean, it's not impossible that the CIA is conducting ESP experiments on unsuspecting citizens.

The Times tries to find out an answer to this question from the American Psychiatric Association, but it turns out the APA itself is a little hazy on the concept. The Times cites a British psychologist, Dr. Bell:

"The extent of the community, Dr. Bell said, poses a paradox to the traditional way delusion is defined under the diagnostic guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association, which says that if a belief is held by a person’s “culture or subculture,” it is not a delusion. The exception accounts for rituals of religious faith, for example."

Wait. So the fact that these people have found each other online makes them technically less likely to be "deluded"? On the official criteria?

Isn't this a little strange? Sometimes "everyone else thinks so, too" makes you rational and sane and part of a community and sometimes "everyone else thinks so, too" shows everybody is insane?

So the answer to the question, "When is a delusion not a delusion?" is, "When enough people share it with you." It follows from this that the way to make something true is to get enough people to believe in it.

No wonder people make fun of us believers in "reality-based" thinking. What a bunch of chumps we must seem.

Remember kids: just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Themes From Amazons: I Am A Jumper

This blog takes its title from one of my very favorite books, Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League.

The book is either by Don Delillo, or partly by Don Delillo, or co-authored by Don Delillo, or something. He has never officially said he is the author, but there's enough overlap with White Noise that there isn't really any question about his involvement. For instance, Murray Jay Suskind makes his first appearance in Amazons, and there are conversations about peeing in sinks and celebrity deaths in both books. Coincidence? I don't think so.

It is not obvious to me why I love this book so much, but there is one thing I can say, which is that it's the only book I know in which a female main character tells her story with humor, nonchalance, style, and pretty much zero emotional hand-wringing, guilt, worry or anxiety.

As Cleo so eloquently puts it, "I just want to play hockey."

Early in the book Cleo befriends a young guy, Shaver, who has a ridiculous illness with a silly name: "Jumping Frenchmen's Disease" causes its sufferers to twitch, jump around, do deep knee bends, and generally do weird things at the wrong moment. Kind of like a kinder, gentler Tourette's.

Cleo and Shaver go together to a kind of big support group meeting for Jumping Frenchmen's, where the disease spokesman, Sydney Glass, says in his speech,
Aren't we all jumpers in a sense? Don't we all lose our sense of motor control, even for a split second, now and then, during out waking day? I think we have to recognize the clinical jumper is different in degree, but not in kind, from the rest of us. In line with this, and to foster a sense of togetherness, I'd like all of you to turn to the person on your right and say, "I am a jumper, I am a jumper, I am a jumper."
Everyone starts chanting: "I am a jumper, I am a jumper." Meanwhile, Shaver says to Cleo, "Let's get out of here ... I hate these people and I hate myself."

"They're just trying to express solidarity," Cleo says. "It's a little like hockey. You stick up for your mates. When Jeep goes over the plastic, we all follow."

"That's the dumbest thing you've ever said, Cleo. 'It's a little like hockey.' I wish Dr. Glass would go over the plastic."

"I am a jumper," she says.

I wish I could say things like "It's a little like hockey," and, as she says later, "It's arugula, you jackass. Dried in a bath towel. Now find us a decent place to eat it." But mostly I wish that when someone says something to me like, "That's the dumbest thing you've ever said," I could reply with something like, "I am a jumper." Something funny and kind, something totally unfazed, unhurt, and unworried.

Eventually Shaver gets put into a Kramer cube for five months of sleeping in the hope of a cure. And sure, Cleo frets about whether he'll get better and whether the Kramer is working and whether she's kept him out too long in the sunshine. But mostly she lives in the present. When her agent and friend asks her, "What's next for you two?" what can she say except, "I don't know. I haven't thought beyond the Kramer. The Kramer is now."

This is why Cleo is my total hero for life.