Tuesday, September 27, 2011

_1984_ in 2011

George Orwell, obviously a serious-minded young man.
I wanted to reread Orwell's 1984 so I downloaded it from Amazon [yeah, yeah, I know]. I happened to open and start reading when I'd just gotten on the subway.  Even the first two pages bowled me over.  Wow, what a book! 

One thing I hadn't remembered at all was the atmosphere of dingy, dirty, broken down surroundings with no comforts or pleasures and with the rationing of chocolate.  There's a smell of cabbage everywhere, and worn carpets, and Winston has a sore on his ankle that won't go away, and one of the first things that happens is that he has to go fix the old gross stopped-up sink in his neighbor's apartment.

Somehow I'd remembered the telescreens, always on, always watching, always listening, but I'd surrounded them in my mind with the look of the dystopian but computerized future:  clean white walls, clean white carpet, you know. 

I think one reason I hadn't remembered the filth and decay is that in the modern world I've come to so powerfully associate the political sheepiness of the populace with the consumer pleasures of the E-Z-Capitalist lifestyle.  

I mean, I've always figured that one reason we can't get it together to get upset about the unjust wars, the constant surveillance, and the dismantling of our legal protections is that, well, as long as we've got a new phone, the internets are working OK, and we can afford whatever A-line skirt/GPS device/whatever is hot for Fall, it's just too much trouble to get all upset.  But if Facebook went down, well, there'd be some uprisings.    

There was actually some evidence for this in The New York Times about a week ago.  There was some story about Netflix charging extra fees or raising their fees or something and I happened to look at the comments (I know! I know! Don't look at the comments!) and there were like 200 really angry and really outraged comments.  People were like, We're Mad As Hell and We're Not Going to Take It Anymore!  These people are fascists! Mister Netflix Guy is going to pay! 

I seriously haven't seen that level of indignation since Paul Krugman suggested that the US had misbehaved in the decade since September 11th.

Anyway, I had been reading quietly and happily for about four stops when suddenly a huge crowd of kids got on.  I think they were about 11 years old, and boy were they making a racket -- shouting, jostling, making faces.  This happens occasionally in a big city, usually as part of a school trip, and usually I'm slightly grouchy when it does.  Like, stop bumping into me and shouting in my ear!  And turn that music down!

But it's a sign of how immediately frightening 1984 is that in the grip of its atmosphere, I felt exactly the opposite.  These kids were completely irrepressible, unfrightened to express their every whim, accustomed to the world being a source of pleasure and happiness, and immersed in a world of gadgetry, fashion, stupid jokes, and internet memes.  In short, they were basically full of the qualities opposite to the qualities of every person in 1984.

My heart, it was filled with joy.  

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mary Shelley Was Ms. Interesting

Mary Shelley
I was reading a book by the philosopher Peter Singer and he mentioned a nineteenth-century guy named Godwin who proposed a crazy thought experiment in which you are outside a burning building and inside is a famous author and also your father who is the author's valet and you have to decide whether to save the author or your father and Godwin said you should save the author because morality requires impartiality and impartially the author will bring a greater amount of happiness and well-being to the world than your father ever would.

I went home and I looked up Mister Godwin and I found out that he was the husband of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley author of Frankenstein one of the most philosophical novels ever written (IMHO) and a book I've always taken to be profoundly critical of the impartial worldview and I also learned that not only did Mary run away with Percy Shelley when she was seventeen and he was married and write Frankenstein when she was twenty she also wrote other novels including one about father-daughter incest which she sent to her father Mister Godwin and he never sent it back despite her begging and pleading because he thought it was disgusting and it never was published 'til after he died.

Also she had a "non-exclusive" marriage with Percy and a miscarriage and two children who died young and then finally another son who lived and as we all know her husband died young but Mary lived long and unlike all the "Mr. Interestings" out there she spent a huge amount of her time taking care of her son and making money for his school fees and moving to Harrow on the Hill (don't ask me) so that her son could attend Harrow without paying boarding fees and later she lived with her son and traveled with him and his wife and meanwhile she wrote a bunch of books and stories and political stuff and edited some of her late husband's work.

You can read all about it on Wikipedia here.

 We love you, Ms. Shelley.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Don't People Get Tired Of Competition And Negotiation?

Simone de Beauvoir
You know that whole individualistic world view we inherited from the enlightenment?  I think it's wearing us out.

It's pretty much part and parcel of that individualistic world view that people have to compete and negotiate with one another.  I mean, if you want something, or even need something, the individualistic world view says you should try to exchange something you already have for it, presumably seeking out the "best deal" you can.

If you think of this as just having to do with some contexts of "commerce and business" it can be OK -- good, even.  But when it takes over everything, not so much.  For one thing, being in constant competition and negotiation is exhausting.

When I think about the exhaustingness of competition and negotiation, I'm always reminded of teaching Simone de Beauvoir in my Intro class a few years ago.  This was the old translation, and it's just my memory ...  but I remember her saying that one reason men had to create women in the nurturing passive image they did was so that they would have people around to support and love them.  People they didn't have to compete and negotiate with.

Like, if you're a man, you're out all day competing and negotiating, and that means when you get home you need something else.  Some nurturing.  And so it was much in the interests of men to remove women from the competition and negotiation zone.  They did this by making laws restricting women's rights, by rewarding them for passive nurturing behavior, and by punishing them for other kinds of behavior.  

Women, naturally, were all, "Are you kidding me"?  Even though the transformation isn't complete, it has happened.  Women work outside the house, they pay for stuff, and they're generally expected to do all the same competition and negotiation crap men have always had to do.

But this means intimate relationships are no longer a competition- and negotiation-free zone.  Couples have to negotiate over housework, over whose career will take precedence, over whose crazy obsessions the bank account will go toward, and so on.  Especially if they have kids.

I remember a discussion in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how the higher you go in the university hierarchy the fewer women there were.  The article said one main reason was that women were doing more housework and more childcare and thus didn't have as much time for research.  What might the university do?

And this one commentator said something like, "Nothing.  If a woman fails to NEGOTIATE properly with her husband about domestic duties, how is that anyone's problem but her own?"

So, yeah.

For a long time I wondered why so many people who were "conservative" in the sense of wanting tighter fiscal policies were also so often "conservative" in the sense of wanting women at home not working.  But this suggests, I think, a connection.  Tighter fiscal policies means the competition and negotiation game is especially tough.  Having the game be especially tough makes it tougher to have it take over your whole life.  Indeed, if you have kids, it might be frightening to think that someone being home to care for them would depend on having played the negotiation and competition game properly.  But women's-place-is-in-the-home:  solves that problem.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

David Brooks Wishes Kids Had More Problems?

Today David Brooks talks about a study showing today's young people are bad at thinking and talking about morality and values.  Some of the evidence he gives for this is that young people can't recount any moral dilemmas that they themselves have experienced.

I know this isn't what he means, but it sure sounds like he's saying he's upset that kids have so few difficulties in life.  Some of the evidence from the study, as he describes it:
When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.
Well, yeah.  I mean, aside from the fact that people of all ages are hazy on the concept of "moral dilemma," it's funny to say What's Wrong With These Kids, Having So Few Problems in Life!

I mean, the classic dilemmas are situations in which you face a difficult choice because you have multiple obligations you can't meet.  You have to lie to keep a promise, or you have to neglect one person to help another, or you have to decide whether it's better to protect your friend or to tell a truth that will cause her pain.

But these are young people.  They haven't had many professional duties, or complex life relationships.  For them, the obvious causes of dilemmas are:  cheating friends, unintended pregnancy and children, neglectful or ill-behaved parents, and adults who mistreat one another.   

I can see why the fact that kids couldn't think of personal experiences with these as a real cause for handwringing.

Kids these days. When I was their age, I had to decide whether to save my father or a famous writer from a burning building, whether to join the resistance for my country or help my ailing mother, and whether to flip the trolley switch, killing one but saving five.   All before breakfast.

Those softies. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

What Is Wrong With Girls Going Wild?

There's a lot of disagreement about women's sexuality.  But one thing tends to bring people together, and that is a belief that when young women take off their clothes, kiss one another, and go back to the Girls Gone Wild tour bus for further fun, something has gone wrong.

Men call them sluts; feminists call them manipulated by a sexist debauched culture.  The TV show Arrested Development calls them "Girls With Low Self-Esteem." 

But what exactly is it that is regrettable?  These women are choosing to participate, they seem to be having a good time, and they don't seem coerced.  Indeed, it's often noted how small any material rewards are:  they get a cap or a T-shirt or something.  

I think one standard thoughtful response to this question is something like this.  What's regrettable is that these women are "objectifying" themselves, or permitting themselves to be objectified.  Even though they are choosing to participate, they're being objectified because they're giving sexual pleasure to other people, via their bodies, and not getting any "authentic" sexual pleasure for themselves.

Insofar as it is "sexy" or "fun" for them, it must be because of the attention, and not because of something they're getting for themselves.  Whatever they are getting out of it is other-directed, rather than self-directed. 

But it seems to me there's something not quite right about this.

One part I really can't run with is that there's a problem with other-directedness.  Because when you move away from the sexual domain and into other domains, being other-directed is often a good thing not a bad thing.  Suppose I want to throw you a party, and I become really focused on wanting you to have a good time.  Imagine I feel like your having a good time will make me have a good time -- indeed, that I could not have a good time without your having a good time.

If this is just a party and not my whole way of life, there's obviously nothing weird about that.  My enjoyment follows from your enjoyment, my preference is not for some thing, but for you to have a certain set of feelings and experiences.  If anything, we'd say that's an excellent part of human interactions.  If we go out to dinner once a week and I can't really have fun unless you are having fun, that's a nice thing not a regrettable thing.

In the New York Times discussion of women's sexuality a couple of years ago, one of the researchers talks about how much she thinks women's desire is "narcissistic" in the sense that women desire to be desired.  I don't know if that's right, but if it is even a little, then the women who participate in GGW can certainly be acting on their own "authentic" desires -- those desires just happen to be desires about the desires of others.

But having other-directed desires is not narcissistic!  Why not say, "generous," or "other-directed" or any of the million other nice ways to describe people who are concerned with other people's feelings?

There definitely is something regrettable when women's desires are only other-directed, and social and cultural pressures tell women they ought to have other-directed sexual desires -- to be sexy, rather than to feel sexual desire and pleasure.  And this is true about our world, and it is bad.

Like, this Salon article about sex from the economic point of view basically makes an assumption that women's sexual desires don't even exist -- women just have sex to get other stuff.  Jeez, people.

And so, insofar as things like GGW foster and promote this vision of women's sexuality, that is bad.

I think that is right, and I think it's important.  But it's not the same as saying that other-directed desires are second-rate, or bad, or inauthentic, or rooted in low self-esteem.  Ideally, in sex everyone would have a mix of other-directed desires and self-directed desires. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Spoonful Of Sugar Makes . . . You A Better Person?

The "ego depletion" theory of self-control is based on a very plausible idea:  when you use your self-control to make yourself do stuff, your self-control gets all worn out and you do stupid things.  Your "ego" gets "depleted" and you can't make yourself do what you know you should do.  To anyone who has had a piece of cake or a cocktail after a long day, sabotaging an otherwise successful effort at healthful eating or sobriety, this will have immediate resonance.

In their studies, the psychologists who created this theory -- Roy Baumeister and his colleagues -- make people do annoying things, like sit hungry in front of chocolate and not eat it, and then they test how long they're willing to exert their will -- say by forcing themselves to work at a puzzle.

There's a good article by John Tierney about it here, focusing more on decision-making.  And there's a good review of Baumeister's new book, co-authored with John Tierney, here, that's more of an overview.

The metaphor of ego-depletion is that of a muscle that gets worn out.  If you don't want to use up your self-control, don't force yourself to do too many difficult things at one time.  But if want to have more self-control, you can strengthen it with exercises. 

Supposedly, if you use your willpower to keep your room tidy, keep a diary of what you eat, or speak in complete sentences, and you'll have more of it when it comes time to quitting smoking or studying your German or whatever.

Like muscles, self-control needs food.  Ironically (as we say nowadays), self-control feeds on sugar, and an influx of glucose will help you make better decisions.  Sugary soft drinks?  Yes.  Cake, yes.  Diet coke? No.  Tuna plate with lettuce, hold the carbs?  Not so much.

They connection between self-control and glucose is so powerful that, as Tierney says, "The mere expectation of having to exert self-control makes people hunger for sweets."

The jokes kind of write themselves, don't they?

Anyway, there's one big thing at the center of ego depletion theory that doesn't seem right to me.  Sure, it's plausible that when you have to exert self-control, your ability to exert self-control goes down.  And sure, it's also easy to believe that when you have your act together in small domains like keeping things tidy you're more likely to have your act together in bigger ways.

But the muscle metaphor fails in one crucial way:  there's nothing like "falling off the wagon" for your muscles. 

With self-control, it seems like you can be going along in life with everything in order when a wave of difficulty just knocks everything out of whack.  People who've returned from war have been massively exercising their self-control, but it does not always seem easy to transport that "strength" back home.

Muscles aren't like that.  When they get weak, they get weak slowly.

I have another theory.  Isn't it possible that what depletes your self control, really, is being harassed, annoyed, and unhappy? 

Then using your self-control can make you harassed, annoyed, and unhappy -- and if I had to sit hungry in front of chocolate I'd be harassed, annoyed and unhappy.  But other things can make you feel this way too.  Don't you think a person who just received bad news, or got yelled at, or was contemplating death, would also find it harder to work on the puzzle?

Why not just say, being in a bad mood makes you have less self-control, and using your self-control is one thing that can put you in a bad mood?  And that sweets put you in a good mood?  Nothing surprising there.

That would at least explain the falling off the wagon problem.  As we all know, the causes of bad moods are vast and varied.

And let me just close by observing that if the ego-depletion theory, or anything like it, is right, then the situation we have is this:  people whose self-control is worn down by having to select good options from among bad, together with massive industry forces devoted to wearing down our self-control to make us select bad options instead of good ones. 

From that point of view, it's a miracle we're not even less healthy and more in debt than we are.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Fixing Fashion

New rule for the world:  only athletes can be fashion models.

Honestly, I used to love fashion.  It always annoys me when people are all "Oh, I'm really into architecture" and then go on to put down fashion as frivolous.  Guys, it's the same thing: art in a practical context.

But the fashion skinniness problem is SO out of control. It's just nuts.  You can't even enjoy looking at the ads anymore.

My proposal addresses the problem.  Athletes are obviously super healthy.  They'd be good for us to emulate.  They look great. 

Plus, they're a pretty racially diverse group.  There are plenty of disabled athletes.  And the athletes -- female athletes, I mean -- could use the money.

You see?  A bunch of problems, solved.

Or, you know, this approach is OK too:

This is a large Guess ad in the shop window near my home.  More like this please!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

If I Were A Boy

Today I'm thinking about this question:  How would my scholarly life be different if my name were Paul Jennings and my author photo was this:

I got to wondering about this reading Larissa MacFarquhar's recent profile of the philosopher Derek Parfit in The New Yorker, which I really enjoyed.

In particular, the reflection was prompted by the description of Parfit's feelings of admiration for the "dazzling" Bernard Williams. I, too, am an admirer of Williams's philosophy, though I didn't know any of the personal things the article describes: that he flew Spitfires in the Air Force; that he had an affair with another man's wife; that he wrote about opera. 

In describing Parfit's admiration for Williams, MacFarquhar suggests it's not just Williams's writing that Parfit admires, it's also his whole way of being in the world.  That "way" is captured partly in a photograph, in which Williams is described as looking aristocratic, worldly, godlike.  Williams just somehow seems like fascinating guy.

I know this feeling.  It's good when you have it, and of course, it's even better when someone else has it about you.  And it is common and natural for intellectuals to be fascinated by one another like that. 

In our discipline of philosophy, fascination and its lesser cousin "interest" play an unusually outsized role, because the first crucial step in anything is getting people interested in what you have to say.  Even if you're right, it gets you nowhere if no one finds you interesting.  Indeed, part of Parfit's interest in Williams seems to have stemmed from thinking Williams was completely wrong and mistaken in his basic ideas.

Now the problem.  Have you considered how difficult it is for a woman to fit into this world of intellectual fascination?

Men just don't seem to be fascinated by women in that way. Sure, they might admire women intellectually, and they might have crushes on them and want to sleep with them, but intellectual hero-worship?  No.  It doesn't really happen.

Even if it did happen, it would never be described in as intellectual hero-worship, because everyone would be falling all over themselves saying it was some kind of sexual or romantic fascination, not a genuine intellectual fascination.  The woman would be at best demoted to "attractive" and at worst accused of playing her sexuality for attention.

Of course, if a young woman is intellectually fascinated by a man -- well, this just seems to strike everyone as completely as it should be. 

So, really, is it any wonder we have an "inverted pyramid" gender problem in academia?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Food Courts: The Unsung Heroes Of Modern Life

The new twenty-first century food court at the Eaton Centre

There's a lot of hating on food courts.  People are always dumping on them like they're a symbol or manifestation of everything that's wrong with capitalism and consumer culture.

But if you could just improve the food and get rid of the styrofoam containers, the food court is a wonderful thing and a triumph of modernity.

They're egalitarian.  At the food court, everyone sits next to everyone else.  Mr. Subway is next to Madame Poutine; Ms. Sushi is next to little Sbarro.

They're community oriented.  Have you noticed how much people like to be near other people?  One of the best and nicest things about people them.  Hilariously, for many people, their favorite way to be alone is to be with a bunch of other people they don't know.  Why read or surf at home when you can do it at Starbucks with a million strangers? 

I'm not making fun of anyone here: I love the feeling of being alone with my thoughts and surrounded by a bunch of people I don't know.

But most importantly, they're accepting.  Often at the food court I see various kinds of social misfits, or just people who are alone in life and don't have other people around them who love them.  Maybe they don't want to cook.  Maybe they don't have someone to cook for them.  Maybe they just don't have anyone to share their meals with.

These people are sitting alone at the food court.  But it seems they're having an OK time: they're enjoying some Chinese food, maybe having some coffee after, and watching the scene.  At a real restaurant, it would be awkward and expensive, and weird to be alone.  But at the food court, it's totally normal.

Wouldn't it be so much worse if the social misfits of the world had to eat alone at home, day after day?  Doing what, watching TV?

I was prompted in these reflections by having just been to the new food court in the North part of the Eaton Centre.  The picture is above.  I didn't even know this was in the works, but it's like the food court of the twenty-first century:  beautiful, gleaming, with fancy espresso places right next to the MacDonald's.  There's good food.   There's even a special room just for nursing moms.

And the crowning glory:  real plates and reusable silverware! 

Gods of the food court:  I thank you.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dickens, Death, And Domestic Disturbance

In last week's New Yorker Jill Lepore wrote about "Dickens camp":  a place ordinary people go every summer to talk about Dickens. 

She seems to have had a great time.  Me, I've got no plans for Dickens camp.   To be fair, there does not seem to exist any X for which I would want to go "X camp."  But it's also true that part of why I would never go to Dickens camp is that I've never really liked Dickens and I've never understood his popularity.

It's not that I don't like long nineteenth-century novels, because I do:  I am an absolute fanatic for Trollope.  And you know, you might think that in the Venn Diagram of the world, the area of "likes to read long nineteenth-century novels" would be so small that there wouldn't be a lot of room inside for non-overlapping categories.  But, there is.  Here I am:  like Trollope; don't like Dickens.

Part of what I don't like in Dickens is the caricature aspect.  OK, I've gone on about this before.  But even this year at Dickens camp, one of the first questions that comes up is "Why is Pip such a little shit?"  Indeed, why are the people of Dickens's universe all either saints, or devils, or morons, or children?  How can this be considered good?

I was appalled to learn from Lepore's article that when they were in their forties, and had had twelve children with ten living, and the youngest kid was just six, Dickens basically kicked his wife out of the house and "all but forbade the [nine younger] children to see their mother."

How does something like this happen?  How can you have twelve children with someone you can't bear to live with?  Lepore says about this that "domestic tragedy, like domestic happiness, is ineffable."  But, you know, not in Trollope it isn't.  If Trollope were writing the story of Dickens's life, he'd easily describe this story to you so that it makes sense that two seemingly normal people can come to despise one another so deeply, despite having lived in such intimacy for so long.  It's Dickens who can only tell this story by making the wife into a shrew, or the husband into a monster.

The one thing in Lepore's article that gave me insight into why the Dickensomania was a quote from Thomas Carlyle, who said that in Dickens the reader finds "dark, fateful, silent elements . . . the elements of death itself."

Darkness and death:  there's something to that.  Certainly the character of Miss Havisham makes you feel the dark and the death.  Remember Miss Havisham?  Jilted at the altar as a young woman, she spends the rest of her life in her wedding dress, with the clocks stopped and the wedding cake uneaten at the table.  Frightening.

Miss Havisham, drawing by Harry Furniss

It's true, there's nothing like this in Trollope.  The main jiltee of Trollope's fiction is Lily Dale, and though she never really recovers from being jilted by the only man she loves, Lily has a very normal life:  she's a companion to her mother; she helps out her friends; she makes a second man who wants to marry her very miserable, because she can't give up her love for the first.  She is, indeed, utterly determined to live out her life as a reasonable and friendly, if sad, person.

The standard reason people give for why they think Dickens is great where Trollope isn't has to do with politics and class:  it's true that Trollope writes mostly about the aristocracy, and Dickens writes about poor people.  That's all to the good in its way, I'm sure.  But I can't help but feel that among poor as well as the rich, there's a million Lily Dales for every Miss Havisham. 

I mean, to live out your life being a good friend and helpful person, trying to be cheerful despite some very bad luck and some deep sadness:  that is a completely universal experience, and not at all restricted to the upper classes. 

Lepore quotes a camp attendee who says that the reason Trollope was so exasperated by Dickens was that "Trollope mistrusted rhetorical power."  It has to be admitted, as Trollope admitted, that if we go by literary fans and majorities, Dickens clearly has the more succesful rhetorical style.  But maybe in this case the majority is just wrong.