Monday, July 29, 2013

The New "What Do Women Want"?

I was annoyed to see this book shelved only under "Gender Studies." Why not "Health and Well-Being?"

I just finished reading the new book What Do Women Want, by Daniel Bergner.

1. My super-double-extra number one favorite thing in this book is the way it challenges the twin stereotypes of women-want-intimacy-and-love and women-are-naturally-monogamous. Bergner compiles an impressive array of empirical research suggesting a radically different picture: that women want novelty and variety; that desire in a long-term monogamous relationship often wanes; that desire wanes with boredom for women more than for men.

It's true that the book pushes its "naturally promiscuous" alternative without a lot of nuance or in-depth consideration of opposing views. But this didn't bother me, because the twin stereotypes have such a strange crazed grip on people.

2. Indeed, with respect to monogamy, Berger's arguments are particularly effective at challenging the evolutionary argument, you know, that women have to invest a ton of energy in offspring and so are naturally picky whereas men want to spread their seed. Bergner cites a ton of animal studies in which females are sexually aggressive, and sexually promiscuous, and mentions quite astonishing examples of cases where scientists of the past seem to have seen what they wanted to see rather than what was there.

Of course, taking what seems "obvious" to some science guys and cooking up a story to show how it's "adaptive" and thus an essential aspect of our biology instead of the result of social and cultural forces has always been the problematic strategy of evolutionary biology applied to things like sex. And the risk is always high when we're talking about things people want to be true. And a lot of people -- men and women -- seem to want the women-intimacy-monogamy thing to be true.

3.  One of the most interesting -- OK, to me frightening -- parts of the book was the description of how female desire drugs are being consciously interpreted as supports for monogamy, appropriate and approvable only if they don't make women just, you know, really want to have sex. Desire drugs for middle-aged married woman who love their husbands but compare the pleasure of sex with them to the pleasure of returning library books? We are on it! Girls just want to have fun? Not so much. Various people want the drugs to be "good but not too good." You can read more about this part of the story in Bergner's piece in the Times.

4.  Though I get why it had to be this way, I wish the title/argument didn't have to be expressed in terms of What Do Women Want -- in fact, I wish the word "want" wasn't here at all. In addition to the obvious invitation to stupid remarks like the one on the back cover from Gay Talese (it's "a subject that often exceeds our intelligence" -- women, so kooky, so strange, so Other!) it also invites misinterpretation because the word "want" is used in a "desire or interest, conscious or unconcious" sense, in a "this is what I ultimately want to do sense -- i. e., intend, always conscious and reflective, and in a "this is what will satisfy -- ultimately make happy" sense. All very different.

There are women in this book who describe fantasies, sometimes disturbing to themselves, of being forced to have sex, sometimes violently, sometimes with multiple strangers. While it's essential to recognize these as important and genuine parts of these women's sexual lives and desires, connected to "want" in the first sense, fantasies need not be connected to want in the second or third sense, of this being something these women ultimately want to do or have done to them in reality. It's complicated.

Also, saying "What Do Women Want?" makes it sound like women in some obvious way don't know themselves, but I don't think that's an apt description of what is going on.

5. While I admired, and was persuaded by, the frank discussion of the possibility that women are turned on by the desire and interest of others and thus have a sexuality that is to some extent "other-directed," I wish the word "narcissistic" didn't come into play in describing that. As I discussed a bit in this previous post 1) it would be better if both sexes had a mix of self-directed and other-directed desires and 2) other-directed isn't "narcissistic" - why not a nice word like "generous"?

6. Everyone should keep in mind the possibility that women are different. It's wrong to say women really want X or Y or Z -- people vary a lot. It's because the alternative intimacy-monogamy narrative has been so outrageous on this score that I think it's OK that this book does a bit of generalizing in opposition to that narrative.

But do remember, one woman's meat is another woman's poison.

Monday, July 22, 2013

From The Hot Best-Seller "What Went Wrong?": 2075 Edition

An image from Bladerunner, of course.

Contents of the 2075 best-seller What Went Wrong? Culture and Society in the Age of Affluence, 1980-2075.


It's the most important question of our time: what went wrong? How did we fail to prevent the Great Collapse of 2050? What were the people of the Age of Affluence thinking?

Chapter 1: Dupes, Devotés, and Racketeers: Capitalism and Credulity in the Age of Affluence

We begin with a discussion of the so-called Mystery of Economic Trust: why did people of the Affluent Age trust orthodox economics, despite its obvious dramatic failures? Were they dupes, deer in the headlights? Were they devotés, who abandoned their judgment to a cult of experts? Were they racketeers, who knowingly exploited their fellows for economic gain?

Chapter 2: Working For The Pretend: The End of Pay in the Age of Affluence

Where did our cultural expectations of 24-7 work for nothing in return come from? In the twentieth-century, there was a deeply embedded cultural idea of "work" for "pay." Certain ideas inherited from their ancestors -- that work should be limited to a certain number of hours per week, that work should be compensated with pay, that workers were entitled to breaks -- were part of their cultural framework. Eventually these came to seem mere superstitions. "Interning" was work without pay in hopes of future employment, but threats of being let go worked just as well. We trace how these developments, in a context of inequality, ensured the end of the quaint idea of payment.

Chapter 3: "Let Them Eat Beefcake: Technology and The Food That Can't Feed You

Next we turn to a consideration of the causes of the paradoxical hunger/obesity crisis of 2025. Long ago, hunger and starvation were caused by a lack of food, resulting from natural crises and ordinary poor planning. All that changed in the early twenty-first-century, as food technologists found their holy grail: caloric snack foods with no nutritional value that caused hunger instead of satiety. While a short-term boon for food corporations, the long term result was that plump people with kitchens full of food began, nonetheless, to starve.

Chapter 4:  We Are All Hikikomori Now

You might be surprised to learn that people of the Age of Affluence loved to go out and spend time with one another -- literally, IRL -- and did so for fun and not just as a chore. In "restaurants," people ate in groups -- just for pleasure. There was so much socializing that our current typical life, spent indoors and alone, was considered odd enough to be considered a disorder worth naming. What went wrong? What caused the end of non-virtual interaction?

Chapter 5:  Children in An Ownership Society: Where Do They Fit In?

Like us, people of the affluent age felt strongly that to simply give goods and money away to poor people would be wrong: it would simply encourage idleness and take away their sense of personal responsibility. But they made an exception for children: in the affluent age, so-called "helicopter parents" showered their kids with goods and attention, and even abandoned children were simply given food and shelter. But in our current 100 percent ownership society, we are forced to view children as simply small poor people -- especially as infants, they own nothing we don't give them. We thus explain the rise in child mortality in terms of the failure to find a justifying ethical reason or the political will to treat children in any other way.


If, after reading this book, you want to know more about the Affluent Age, just visit one of our local Nostalgia Centers™. There you can have a cocktail in a "bar," with "friends," read a book, play a musical instrument, and have sex.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Omnipresence Of Politics Is The Omnipresence Of Indignation

Celebrations in Honor of Giuseppe Garibaldi in Sferisterio Arena in Macerata, detail, 19th century. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Is it just me, or is politics taking over? It's everywhere now. It's not just that it's everywhere, it's that it's such a large proportion of everything.

Maybe I'm misremembering but I think you used to be able to read The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books and find a little politics in with a lot of other stuff and now it's like politics politics politics politics politics.

Sure, part of the story is that a lot of shit is happening. But is that all there is to it?

Here are three darker theories about the new omnipresence of politics.

1. The new omnipresence of politics is really the omnipresence of indignation. Confronting actual things can be grim, and thus sad, and we all know how bad that is for the soul. Whereas indignation -- it's life affirming! It makes you feel like you're doing something! Whether you're obsessed with things you agree with or things you disagree with, politics is an arena where you never have to check your indignation at the door.

2. Politics is like J. Lo for the literati set. I mean, politics has the fun of gossip, but allows you to feel like you're being all serious about things. Everyone loves gossip. But gossiping about your friends is risky or time-consuming and in the modern world: either you're online, in which case you're gonna get found out, or you have to make a phone call or meet for coffee ... and who has time for that? I guess there are celebrities. But a lot of people feel celebrity gossip is beneath them.

3. Talking about politics gives people a way of feeling like they're thinking about something, now that actual intellectual activities like reading are passing into the realm of the antiquated. I mean, you can't really tweet in an interesting way about reading a novel or seeing an opera. But politics -- there's always some tiny bit of new news that can gobbled up and spit out in a matter of seconds.

And by the way, while we're on that subject, can I just say that it has not somehow become OK to talk in a carefree way about how you can't read books anymore because the internet has rewired your brain and modern life is so busy no one has time to read. Yes, if you have small children or you have to work three jobs to make a living, you are off the hook. But lots of people have plenty of time for Netflix and social networking and if you have time for those you have time to read.

Also, I know this will come as a surprise to some of you, but finishing books is not beyond your abilities either. People keep talking about how they start but can't finish. But interestingly, finishing one book is no more difficult than starting several. All you have to is, when you go back to interrupted reading, pick up the same book you were reading before rather than a different one. Voilà!

If you've been hoping to get back into "reading," but you're a little rusty, do yourself a favor and read Anchee Min's new memoir. When I tell you that Min's arrival in the US in her late twenties, having lied about being able to speak English to get a visa, with almost no money and no one to help her here isn't even the most dramatic part of the story, you'll see why I describe it as a page-turner.

Plus, since this book is full of reflections on the differences between China and the US, it'll soothe your politics addiction even as you find yourself actually reading multiple pages in one sitting.

Please, don't let politics eat your brain. The mind you save may be your own.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Collaboration: Still A Dirty Word

The young Hannah Arendt
I went to see the Hannah Arendt movie last week. I thought it was great -- but this post isn't really about that. This post is about the ways we -- we here in 21st century North America -- are being snookered into thinking that going along with things is somehow a virtue.

Nowadays we don't call it "collaboration." We call it working well in groups, being a team player, being a good fit. But in the right contexts, modern collaboration is sinister in ways relevantly similar to the paradigm case of collaboration -- working with, and supporting, the Nazis in carrying out the Holocaust.

As maybe you know, in the early 60s Arendt wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she argued (among other things) that Eichmann, a Nazi administrator who organized many of the trains in which Jews were sent to their deaths, was acting primarily through a kind of failure to think. This is not "I was just following orders." This is more abdicating one's will entirely to an external force. Eichmann, she says, adopted the principle of always doing what Hitler and the Party said to do; in failing to judge for himself, he became capable of perpetrating evil of vast proportions. (A good essay on the distinction is here).

This book made a lot of people very angry, and it still does. Some of the anger was in response to a part of the book where she questions the behavior of Jewish leaders who helping to organize Nazi activities by drawing up lists and misrepresenting the facts. Some of it was more directly aimed at the thesis that Eichmann was a kind of careerist joiner, a moron, the kind of guy who can only speak in clichés. Some people found the tone of her book -- objective, cold, sometimes ironic -- inappropriate.

Some of the people Arendt enraged were her university colleagues. There's a great scene in the movie depicting the immediate aftermath of an impassioned speech -- in defense of her views, in defense of always trying to find the truth, in defense of taking a philosophical and detached point of view to understand the complete moral collapse in Europe during the Holocaust. She's just been told her colleagues will do everything they can to get her out of the university. She goes to eat lunch, and she sits there alone, calmly eating, while everyone glares at her.

As I was watching that scene I had a small thought about university life: even though tenure is meant to protect the ability to say unpopular things, it is really hard to fight with the group of people with whom you have to work everyday, and will have to work everyday, probably until you retire.

And it seems to me it's getting harder.  The university, like the rest of the world, puts more and more emphasis on cooperation and interdependence. More and more things are done in groups; every problem has a committee; there's all this handwringing about Why Can't Humanities Be Collaborative Like The Science and then we can Make Some Progress. As I've said before, I believe there's a reason research in the humanities is often carried out by people working alone. 

And mulling it over over the next few days, as I read Eichmann in Jerusalem, I was struck by several thoughts about the modern attack on individual judgment and going against the grain.

First there's the obvious: when employers require your social networking passwords, when peaceful protestors are tear-gassed, when the fucking CIA is reading everyone's email, well, yes, Virginia, it's hard to speak unpopular truths.

But there's also something more amorphous going on. There's this whole celebration of collaboration. It's like we forgot it was once a dirty word. We celebrate crowd-sourced knowledge and group activities and working in teams. Often we hear the logic of "If X is going to happen anyway, we need to make X a bit less awful than it would be otherwise."

Sometimes that might be true, but sometimes it's not, and when it's not, this idea -- that if it's going to happen, we should make it happen in a humane way -- displays the logic of collaboration in the worst sense. One of the most striking arguments of Eichmann in Jerusalem is that if the Jewish leaders hadn't helped organize things, yes, there would have been pain and misery, but there would not have been the massive number of deaths. Just doing nothing, she says, would have been better than helping. So collaborating in the interest of lessening the evil can not only be morally mistaken but can also lead to worse consequences overall.

Right at the heart of the matter is individual judgment. In his excellent Introduction to the newest edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem, the Israeli author Amos Elon talks about Arendt's response to the idea that it's essentially impossible to judge another's actions: if you weren't there, how can you know?  Elon says of Arendt: "Her position is that if you say to yourself, 'Who am I to judge?' you are already lost." To do good -- even to avoid doing evil -- you have to think and judge for yourself.

But how often in the modern world do you hear that?  "I can't say," "I wasn't there, so I don't know," and "Don't judge!"

The modern way of policing the new pro-collaboration is to call out independent thinkers for their diva-ism. Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden are called "narcissists" -- the idea being that people who go against the grain are somehow egotistical in the very act of thinking for themselves.

So remember kids: Collaboration, once a dirty word, still a dirty word.

Monday, July 1, 2013

When It Comes To The Moral Problem, You Can Run, But You Can't Hide

Fricka and Wotan during a crucial negotiation, Die Valkyrie, Paris 2013

Warning:  This post discusses moral theory, economics, and Wagner. If your brain has been softened by Mad Men binge watching, wake up! Sharpen your pencils!

I start this train of thought with the seemingly simple question, why ought people to play by the rules they've agreed to? Like, why should you keep your agreements and contracts if you could get away with fraud? Why should you put a stamp on a letter if you knew it would slip through the cracks?

I was prompted to think about this first by the question in The Ethicist about the guy who wanted to hand in one paper for credit in two different college classes. Chuck Klosterman, who seems like a nice guy but who definitely does not deserve to be called even "An Ethicist," never mind "The Ethicist," said there was no problem handing in one paper for more than one course.

This led to the predictable controversy and hand-wringing. OMG won't somebody think of the children?! At one point someone brought up the possibility that doing this was against university policy. And Klosterman said that was irrelevant: if there was a policy against gay sex, that would obviously not make gay sex immoral.

This did not, and does not, strike me as a suitable analogy. What kind of sex you're having is irrelevant to your education. But if the exam policy says "no talking to your fellow students about the questions," then of course talking to your fellow students about the questions is cheating, and wrong. It doesn't matter that talking to your fellow students about the questions is not wrong in itself.

So this got me thinking, what about all the ways you can get away with not playing by the rules? What about in commerce, trade, business? 

It seems to me there are two possible answers to the question of why people ought to play by the rules, and I'm going to say that both of them require reflection on the deep and puzzling question of what is right and wrong.

If that's true, I think it's a pretty dramatic conclusion. Because it seems to entail, among other things, that you can't set up any economic system that doesn't ultimately rest on values  - values which, of course, might be contentious. You can't just legislate order out of chaos.

Before we get to the two answers, we have to set aside an attempt to avoid the question by saying that not playing by the rules is in your own simple self-interest, because if you don't, you'll get caught and you won't be able to reap the benefits of cooperation and exchange. So the answer would be: don't play by the rules, you'll suffer for it, because the rest of us won't let you play.

But this rests on beliefs that seem empirically false. People get away with stuff all the time. I bet that kid got away with handing in one paper for two courses. I remember reading somewhere -- I thought it was the Freakonomics blog, but I can't find it -- about an economist who discovers that he can get away without stamping a letter, who then thinks, well, indeed, if I can do this, why am I buying stamps at all? Often it will be in your self-interest to break the rules.

So this, I set aside.

The first real answer answer is that you could say that since an agreement to play by the rules is like a promise, it's immoral to cheat, just as it's immoral to break a promise.

That's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far in the absence of moral theory. Economic reasoning uses rational choice theory, and rational choice theory says that people, insofar as they are rational, make choices based on fulfilling their own preferences at the least cost to themselves. So how could something's "being moral" be a good reason to do it?

One thing you hear about this is that because of our feeling and psychology, we get a "ping" of pleasure from doing the right thing. More formally, you might say that our moral feelings are there to shape our preferences toward doing the right thing.

But in the absence of a moral theory, this is question-begging, since the issue isn't whether we have those feelings, it's whether we ought to have to those feelings.

Feelings and preference are things you can act to foster or act to eliminate. For example, suppose you were born in a strict religious home, and you were taught that dancing was a sin, and you grew up to think that was stupid, and that dancing was great. You might have a leftover "feeling" against dancing. But clearly the right thing to do would be to "de-bias" yourself: try to get the feeling to go away.

Now, how would you know whether your inclination or preference for keeping your agreements and playing by the rules is one to foster and keep or one to get rid of? It's not obvious. The idea that morality is just for chumps is thousands of years old. If it is, you'd be better off seeking psychological treatment, drugs, or hypnotism to rid yourself of these irrational feelings of integrity.

Doc! I can't cheat! You gotta help me, doc!

The second answer -- well, it's not an answer so much as a way of thinking about the problem -- is that it's in the nature of rules that there have to be consequences for breaking them, and although such a system might not be perfect, it'll dissuade enough of the people enough of the time.

True enough. But notice how deeply morality is implicated in this answer. Is the punishment only for motivation? Can the punishment be unfair? What makes it unfair?

Worse, how do you make a system with an effective punishment system that isn't also a surveillance state with an all powerful person or institution at the top -- something to impose the order the system relies on?

I was pondering these questions as I went to see the four operas of Wagner's Ring cycle recently. Amazing, incredible; if you think Wagner is about metal breast plates please look again at the picture at the top of this post, depicting a crucial negotiation scene among the gods at Valhalla.

Anyway, in reading around about the operas, I came upon this excellent book review by philosopher Jerry Fodor, who brings up related thoughts about law and contracts. In particular, he argues that the Ring is largely about "a paradox" of law and order: "laws and contracts are obeyed when the cost of breaking them isn’t reckoned to be worth the benefits." It's in moments of passion that laws and contracts are needed, to preserve order. But when passions are intense -- when desire is in ascendance, when passion would "give anything to have its way," law and order must break down, precisely because the costs of compliance are now reckoned as astronomical.

So just when you need law and contracts to keep order, they cannot help but fail. It's related to the morality problem: the full version of the "why" can never be simply the rationality of agreements. 

Fodor puts the conclusion beautifully:  "So if it’s not law and it’s not love, what then, according to the Ring, is the solution of the problem of order? The Ring doesn’t offer one."

There just isn't any answer.

And by the way -- of course it would be unethical to hand in one paper for more than one class without permission. Duh!