Monday, September 29, 2014

Vulnerability, Feminism, and Writing While Female

Recently, I was going to write a post that started with an anecdote that -- well, let's say it was an anecdote that showed me in a personally vulnerable light.

And at first I thought -- well, wtf, why not? Showing vulnerability can be a hallmark of good writing. When an author shows their weaknesses and self-doubt -- their insecurities and uncertainties, their neuroses and pain -- the reader connects with them, is drawn in, feels their own self-doubt and pain assuaged. One of the noblest functions of literature -- making us all feel less alone -- is thus attained.

And yet, in the end, I was like "Nah, I don't think so." Perhaps not surprising. You may have noticed that this blog often foregoes the narrative, introspective, personal, emotional style for one that is more declarative, outward-looking, and opinionated.

As I've said and I'll say again and again, this is not because I don't care for the narrative, introspective kind of writing. In fact I love it. But sometimes I don't do it, sometimes for reasons that I don't do it has to do with the whole problem of "writing while female."

Because I feel like when you're writing while female, things that might otherwise be read as "brave person opens up and lets us see his vulnerable side" instead get read as "weak woman reveals her weaknesses and and lets us see her weak side."

It's like what happens when women try to use self-deprecating humor. Instead of it being like "oh, funny, you were making fun of yourself!" people just take your remarks at face-value. You: deprecated. If a male professor says in a joking tone that Gee, despite having a PhD, they just can't keep their appointments sorted out -- oh ha ha. If a woman says it? People start falling all over themselves with suggestions for tweaks and improvement. So. irritating.

Recently the comedian Jen Kirkman has been brilliantly showcasing this effect by publicizing and responding to the inane and inappropriate responses that she gets to her stories and jokes. If she makes a joke about her romance situation, it's like "Don't worry! You're pretty! You'll find someone!" If she makes jokes about her modest popularity it's like "Don't worry! You'll make it! Fuck the haters!" To both of which she is like "People! They are jokes. I am a comedian. I am not asking for sympathy." As someone who listens obsessively to Marc Maron on the WTF podcast I can tell you: men making self-deprecating jokes do not elicit that kind of reaction.

And same thing too with hedging and uncertainty. A man who qualifies his statements by pointing out that it's not always so and there are exceptions and maybe I don't have the whole story sounds like a man who is confident enough to acknowledge that the truth is complex. But for some reason, when a woman qualifies her statements, it's like "Oh she's uncertain, must not know what she's talking about."

Ever since I encountered this dating advice for women from an expert (blogged previously here) I've been brooding about the way that at some deep level, men just like it if a woman hedges, and doesn't make too many declarative statements, and doesn't check her smartphone.

The way self-doubt and vulnerability, when expressed by women, prop up the attitudes certain people have, of women as self-doubting and vulnerable, and of wanting women to be self-doubting and vulnerable -- well, it makes me grouchy and combative.

It makes me want to put my game face on, and say what I think about things, and leave out the anguish and hurt feelings, and leave out the stories that make the reader picture me, metaphorically unclothed, with my vulnerabilities exposed for the world to see.

So that anecdote? Sorry: you'll never get to hear it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Dreaming Of Other Worlds And The Garden-Variety Disappointingness Of Ordinary Life

At the Eaton Centre where I sometimes like to hang out, there's a giant ad set up for the Cirque du Soleil's new "Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities!" show. The theme is that you'll enter a portal to another world, a world of mysteries and surprises and interesting things.

Every time I see it I think about the depth of my attraction to the whole other worlds thing -- especially worlds like the ones they're suggesting that involve both flying through the air and cool clothes and how, because I can't cognitively enter in to the actual other worlds idea, I'm unable to see the spectacle for anything but a bunch of people doing acrobatics -- which, let's face it, appealing as it might be, is another kind of mood thing altogether and is actually among the most worldly thing out there.

It reminds me of this time when I was around eight years old and my parents bought me a fantastic Christmas present that came in a huge box. When I tore the box open, I found it was an oversize chess set, with oversize sculpted pieces, to be played on a large carpet with a chess board pattern on it. The pieces were about eight inches tall and weighted with sand, like weeble-wobbles, so they didn't fall over. And were shaped like for real. I mean, the castle was a castle -- or at least a turret-y thing -- with a staircase winding around it and a castle-y roof. The bishop was a man with a funny bishops hat and robes. The queen -- well, you get the idea. So cool.

I thought this was a great gift. But what I remember most vividly about the occasion of receiving it was not actually anything about the gift itself but rather what I felt when I came down and saw the very large box under the tree.

Because when I saw that box I had a set of feelings I had often as a child. These were a mix of something like "Ooooh, maybe that box contains a portal to another world!" and "Oh, Patricia, you know all that 'other world' stuff is all made up."

I was always somehow hoping there was something else.

This was not, let me emphasize, because there was anything wrong with my life or something making me unhappy. As a child I had a wonderful home life with doting parents and the whole nine yards. Sure, the other kids picked on me at school. But that had nothing to do with why I was daydreaming about another world. The reason I was daydreaming about another world was much more elemental. I just felt, "Really? Is this all there is?"

This world of apples and astronomy and TV sets and baseball games? This is it?

When it came to the box, I'm sure I was influenced by one of my favorite childhood books, The Phantom Tollbooth, which "tells the story of a bored young boy named Milo who unexpectedly receives a magic tollbooth one afternoon and, having nothing better to do, decides to drive through it in his toy car."

Milo has all kinds of surreal adventures that involve funny plays on words and his other world is vivid and fascinating and full of interesting characters. I remember thinking how fun it would be to be Milo, and how I hoped I would someday that I too would receive the gift of a tollbooth portal to hilarity, even though I knew it was impossible. I remember also what a fake-out I thought it was when Milo woke up the next day and the tollbooth was gone but instead of being disappointed he was all "Oh, there's so much that's interesting here!" Hmph.

Incidentally, what I did not remember, and just learned from Wikipedia, is that Milo's quest involves rescuing princesses, which I believe speaks to the depth to which I identified with Milo and not with any of the girls or women in the story, something that seems to have been characteristic of me as a young reader and which probably had profound effects on the development of my personality. But that's another post for another day.

Anyway, as I got older and started to became the rational-minded person I can't help but be today, I lost the easy ability to entertain the idea of the other worlds, and I stopped thinking of magic shows and the tooth fairy and large boxes as possible sites for escaping the everyday.

But I never lost the melancholy of being stuck here in this world that seems, relative to my imagination anyway, kind of a drab and dull and a bit of a disappointment.

For a long time I assumed that I was quite unusual in my particular mix of ideas, because it seemed like a lot of people who knowingly experience my kind of alienation go on to do something about it: they get religion, or join a cult, or become a conspiracy theorist, or whatever -- outcomes that have never even remotely tempted me.

But as time goes on, I wonder how many people experience a feeling like mine without realizing it. Because in case you haven't noticed, a lot of people find staying satisfied with the basic good things in life is not always easy. How many people are successful, with a lovely family, yada yada yada, and find themselves just unable to enjoy themselves?

I feel like when this happens it's almost always chalked up to something very particular. It's modern life -- so stressful. It's modern relationships. It's the new social media FOMO whatever. It's all the fault of someone's parents or something that happened to them as a kid. It's not being able to live out your real dreams.

But maybe those aren't always the reasons. Maybe just being a human in this world is just not so great, and therefore often leaves us feeling disenchanted, dissatisfied, left with the feeling I had at age eight when I encountered my chess set box and had to grapple with the realization that there was no way that box had a phantom tollbooth in it because a phantom tollbooth is not a real thing.

My point being that, contra what you've been told by the twenty-first century entreprenurial positive thinking establishment, you don't need a special explanation for the garden-variety disappointingness of life. It's there because life is garden-variety disappointing.

So, when someone's feeling bad, instead of looking for reasons and causes and explanations etc. etc. etc. maybe we could just be more like "Yeah, I know, huh? Here, have a cookie."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Is Reading So, Like, Nineteenth Century?

Don Quixote in the Library, Adolf_Schrödter, 1834, via Wikimedia Commons
Every September we go back to school and every September I go over the idea that to be successful in your philosophy class you have to read some difficult texts and every September the students get a little glazy-eyed and there are are questions having to do with the point of reading for class.

And every September I try to explain, in a brilliant impersonation of a movie-land Boring Professor, why being able to read things for yourself really matters in terms of forming your own opinion and not just being spoon-fed ideas from people who are actually trying to talk you into something. Every September I try to talk about how if you're not already skilled at reading difficult things, part of the point is to help you read difficult things. Every September, yada yada yada.

Every September I get vaguely irritated thinking about the range of forces that work together to make students think that the point of education is "efficient knowledge transfer" -- a range that weirdly includes sci-fi and pop culture but also certain educational administrative entities and ignorant news-y education pundits and know-it-alls.

Every September I ponder the obvious implicit question: if that's what knowledge is, what the hell are we doing reading anything at all? Hey, Prof, the 1850s called -- they want their learning methods back.

Every September I reflect on the fact that even if university classes are sometimes about efficient knowledge transfers, humanities courses are really about something else, and about how even if that something else is hard to pin down, at least it has something to do with learning how to think for yourself -- something that, contrary to widespread opinion, I'd like to affirm is actually very difficult, and something that seems to me to have something to do specifically with encountering words.

Every September, this prompts me to start thinking about what the deal is. Hey reading, you think you're so great. What makes you so special?

Every September, I think about how exchanging ideas works pretty well when you're using words -- and how once you're using words anyway, it's hard to see the point of presenting them in some ridiculous ephemeral form like a video when you can just, you know, write and read the words themselves instead.

Every September I think about the novels I've read and how I like to use them as examples in class and how this is a problem that just gets worse and worse. Every September I mention examples like "Orwell's book, 1984" and every September the students are, like, "What about that movie -- "The Dark Knight"? and I'm like "Sorry, I'm old and steeped in a culture of words. I'm sure I haven't seen it. Why don't you tell us what happens?

Every September I think about my commitment to the uncomfortable truth that encountering the Human Condition through movies is not like encountering the Human Condition through words -- which is obviously not to say Movies = Bad and Books = Good or anything like that.

And every September I think about the way that the drama of film is just not the same as the drama of word; I'm reminded yet again about how film has this tendency to glamorize, and I encounter the uncomfortable fact about myself that cruelty and violence, presented in the right way, are things I can enjoy watching, even when the same thing, described in words, would horrify.

Then every September when I think about these things I'm reminded of the book and the movie Gamorrah -- which if you don't know is an incredible non-fiction book about organized crime in Italy written by a young guy who sort of got to know people and then had to go into hiding -- and I remember how when I first saw the movie I was, yes, shocked at what it depicted but also, yes, kind of enthralled with the visual beauty of it, by the beauty of the crumbling slums, shot somehow in the sun to make them look like artwork, by the beauty of the kids, with their black hair and expressive faces, and even, yes, by the beauty of the scene in which some gangsters are all in a salon getting their nails done and they all get shot.

Every September I remember, with a shudder, how when I read the book I felt so chastened, by the way the same events described in words brought home the reality of poverty and violence, brought home the horror of having to choose between killing people for the mob and not having enough to eat or worse, brought home how an Italian slum where life is cheap is a place no one wants to be, brought home how sunlight and whatever have nothing to do with it.

And every September, this circles me back to the importance of reading, and I feel a burst of unapologetic fervor about it: yes, there's going to be reading; no, there's no shortcut, no, we're not going to watch a video.

And if that means I'm stuck in the nineteenth century - well, whatever. There are worse things to be.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Prestige Markets, Or, Explanatory Problems in Economics

Harvard. Prestige, we has it.
A few months ago I read the book Flash Boys, which is the Michael Lewis cowboy shoot-em-up story of the recent High Frequency Trading shenanigans. Early in the book, Lewis gets talking about the American Banker Lifestyle and its associated ecosystem, and how in that ecosystem it's REALLY important to work for the "right" bank.

And the "right" bank, it turns out, isn't the one that is the most successful financially or the one that has the best job amenities or whatever. The "right" bank is basically a matter of cool. Central to Lewis's narrative is how the Canadian outsider hero of his story comes to town and is a little mystified by the way the whole thing works -- and how the Canadian bank he works for, RBC, is never really in the running for cool, even when they start to make a gazillion dollars and come out on top of various official rankings and so on. Though you'd think money is the thing -- money isn't really the thing.

In banking, it seems hierarchy isn't about money. It's about ... something else, something associated with aggression and masculinity and something something I'm not clued into. When I read that I thought, "Wow, people are really motivated by ... something."

Then I a week or so ago I read this Washington Monthly article about how students at Harvard, who come in to university determined to something interesting or different or altruistic, and who have never even really heard of investment banking when they arrive, are nonetheless lining up like lemmings for the Wall Street jobs come senior year.

The article showcases how the banks have created a system on campus that attaches prestige to banking jobs and taps into the students' shared mania for competition. It's like the kids go, "Oh, that's the plum? Oh, OK -- look, I can get it!" with little sense of why this particular thing would be the thing at all or what the point is of any of it.

And I thought -- aha, that's it! It's "prestige" that is the word I was looking for, for what so often motivates people in surprising ways.

Once you think about prestige as itself a kind of consumer good, you can see some interesting things. Because it's a social value, it's entirely a matter of culture what does and does not grant prestige. And culture is, as always, fickle. Men can often get prestige through money and career achievement -- but not always. For women it's almost like "being hot" is a necessary -- but certainly not sufficient! -- condition for prestige. One of the effects of racism and other -isms is that some people can't get prestige, because no matter what, other people don't see their accomplishments with a prestige-oriented halo.

As the New York Times explained the other day, it's difficult to get men to want to be school teachers. One reason? It's a "status" thing. Low prestige.

I know it's not news that people are motivated to gain prestige. But these examples seem to suggest that people are not just "sort of" motivated to gain prestige, but that they're really motivated to gain prestige. And the Harvard example suggests that it's not all that hard, in certain contexts, to nudge people's perceptions about what does and doesn't count.

From the economic point of view, does the pursuit of prestige reflect an irrational obsession with status over "real goods" or does it reflect the rational pursuit of subjective, but proper, goal?

Actually, I think you could say either -- but in some ways both answers seem wrong to me. Many of the goods we pursue are social goods, and it would be most peculiar to set up a theory in which it's always irrational to pursue a social good at the cost of, say, material objects or other kinds of experiences. The whole idea of rational choice theory is that it's supposed to be neutral with respect to what is, actually good: so if what you want is status and prestige who is any theorist to tell you you're wrong?

On the other hand, it seems strange to say that a person who gave up a lucrative career they would otherwise have loved only because their friends made it seem appealing and they got all competitive about it had actually not lost anything at all. So that the prestige points -- even if they are fleeting and fade -- are just as good as the everything else points. Yet that is what we'd have to say if prestige is an ordinary good alongside others.

It seems to me to matter what the context is for the given preference and how the person came to have it. That's not a radical view: some theorists of preference have said it's essential, in using preferences, to pay attention to where the preference came from.

The thing about that, though, is that once you start talking not just about preferences but also about where those preferences come from, you're suddenly actually talking about "why people do what they do" -- which, in case you haven't noticed, is kind of a complicated humanistic contextual etc. etc. kind of question.

That is, it's not the kind of thing you can understand with economic models and axioms and stuff. You actually have to read some history and literature and philosophy and sociology and probably art and music theory and all kinds of other things.

If you do happen to want to learn those things I'm happy to tell you those departments still exist and we still get together and talk about stuff -- but with the way things are going, it might not be for long.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Accidental Philosopher Encounters The Movie Snowpiercer

A few days ago I saw the movie Snowpiercer -- which, if you don't know, is nestled the tiny Venn diagram overlap area among the categories "South Korean science fiction action film," "based on a graphic novel by some French guys," and "enviro-dystopian stories that take place after an enormous geo-engineering catastrophe."

I'm not spoiling anything by telling you it's the story of what happens after an experiment to counter-act climate change goes horribly wrong and freezes the whole planet, or that it takes place on a very very very long train that was set in motion just before the freeze and that circles the whole earth once a year, busting through the snow and ice, or that the people on board the train are the only people alive, period.

At the time of the movie they've been on the train for seventeen years. I'm also not spoiling anything by telling you that as the details emerge, we learn that the train is divided into sections, with people at the front doing things like dining on steak and partying while people at the tail section are filthy and barely surviving on disgusting protein sludge and crammed into tiny spaces.

The tail people are constantly tormented by vicious representatives from the powers-that-be from the front of the train, who remind everyone over and over that life on the train can only continue if everyone stays in their proper place: front people chilling at the front, and tail people suffering and dying in the tail.

The movie has a lot of themes, but perhaps most obvious is the theme of social stratification and inequality: it's pretty much chance who got the front section tickets, who got crammed into the rear, and who was just left to die, but of course the front section people have elaborate justifications for why the tail people MUST stay in the tail and how they ought to be GRATEFUL to be on the train at all so the should SHUT UP and stay where they are and STOP COMPLAINING. Sound familiar?

What struck me as brilliant in a sneaky way was the idea was making it a TRAIN. The plot of the movie is the story of a tail section rebellion. Since it's a train, the rebellion has to move forward through all the sections. Which means that as our bedraggled tail rebels fight, they cannot avoid passing through classrooms and sushi bars and night clubs, past dentistry and gardening and a woman sipping a cup of tea and reading a book.

The physical linearity space of the train reminded me immediately of these "shot-gun" houses I encountered when I lived in New Orleans. The story behind those -- urban myth or truth, I don't know -- was that at one time houses there were taxed by width, so people started building these long long houses with all the rooms in a row. And the thing about a shot-gun house is the thing about a train: because of the linearity of it, everyone has to encounter everyone else.

This is a big deal in a movie with social themes. Because it means you can't mentally put yourself somewhere else. Usually if you see class struggle and fighting you see either everyone is fighting or you see one group is being violent while the others are being killed and hurt. And maybe you can imagine yourself doing something completely different. Like teaching class. Or gardening.

But because it's a train, no can do. The train brings everyone together. The effect of this is that after endless images of dirt and pain and fear and fighting you're suddenly face to face with what are plausibly ordinary scenes of your very own life: you're sipping tea, and reading a book -- or you're teaching your students. But then here are these other people, close to death, right at your feet. Because the cars are all in a line, the train implicates everyone.

I have to say also that during the first part of the movie I found myself frequently returning to the thought that, wow, it might be better to be outside dead in the snow than to be on that train.

that reminded me of a disturbing reading experience I had the other day. I was reading Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer's new book on Sidgwick, and in it they're talking about a potential objection to the utilitarian idea that we should evaluate options by comparing the overall consequences of our actions.

The example includes the following thought experiment asking us to evaluate three options:

1) Peace

2) A nuclear war that kills 99 percent of the population

3) A nuclear ware the kills 100 percent of the population

The authors say "Any sane person will agree that (2) would be worse than (1) and (3) would be worse than (2)" -- the potential problem being that (3) seems SO MUCH MORE worse than (2) than (2) is than (1), possibly tough for the utilitarian to explain.

When I was reading I was tired. I misread them as saying that "Any sane person will agree that (2) would be worse than (3) -- that is, that it would be best, if there's going to be a nuclear war, if everybody died. I found myself nodding along in agreement with this.

I thought that they were saying that a war that leaves a smallish bedgraggled group of people, alone on earth, to torment one another and fight over the remaining resources, in a horrible world shot through with radioactivity, would actually be worse than a world with no people, where the cockroaches or whatever would be left alone, to re-evolve, hopefully into creatures who were wiser and more peaceful than we're evidently able to be. Seemed right to me.

So it was a bit of a shock to realize this idea, which had struck me as kind of commonsensical, was actually the one they were saying was insane.

I'm sure it says more about me than about anything else that I think it'd be better for no one to be left on earth at all.

But mostly it probably means: when it comes to planning for the post-apocalypse, don't put the Accidental Philosopher in charge.