Monday, June 29, 2015

The Hegemony Of Improvement Culture, Or, Why Can't I Just Enjoy BodyAttack?

BodyAttack: doesn't it look like fun?
There this group exercise class I love called BodyAttack. If you told me when I was a kid that some day I would grow up to enjoy a sports-inspired work-out class with athletic moves like sit-ups and squats I would definitely have said you were nuts. You think I'm going to go to gym class by choice? No.

But for me, BodyAttack is way fun. It's the way things are fun when you're a seven-year-old: you're running and jumping around to music, all with other people who are also having fun. It's a super-intense work out, and even though the official description uses phrases like "intervals" and "plyometrics," there's actually a lot of just goofy exuberance.

There are silly moves, like where you're doing jumping jacks and every fourth one you jump as high as you can. There's the anthemic track 8, which is basically a high-intensity chorus line to an emotional pop song. There's an outstanding mix of songs like the hip-hop track "Dibby Dibby Sound" and the impossible-to-classify "Hardcore Salsa 2K14 (Hardstyle Edit)."

I went to BodyAttack in Paris, and you know what they do there? They do the class in the dark with blue disco lights. Clearly, I am not the only one who thinks BodyAttack is fun.

Now. You would think that any sensible person, having found a healthy-well-rounded form of exercise that they really enjoy, would be in seventh heaven. You want to exercise and have fun? Just go to the class.

And yet such is the perverseness of some aspect of my psychology that I find this outlook almost impossible to hold on to. I find it extremely difficult to think of BodyAttack as an end in itself. Instead, I'm constantly thinking I need to use the fitness I've gained through BodyAttack to do Something Else.

Like -- maybe I should try to go beyond being pretty fit to become "super-fit." I could start going to the BodyPump weightlifting class, cut the empty wine calories, become one of those people who eats boiled chicken breast and lettuce for every meal.

Or maybe I should take up some intense and time-consuming new athletic activity, like snowboarding or surfing.

Or maybe I should train for some "goal-oriented" end point like a triathlon, or a race, or something.

But the truth is, I don't want to do any of these things. I like BodyAttack. The one activity I could see adding is dance class of some kind -- I used to dance as a young person, and it is fun. But even there -- am I really going to add that class time to the already large amounts of time I'm spending just exercising? Every time I try to put that idea into action, there are just too many other things to do in the day.

Typically, having cycled through and rejected all of these ideas, I come back to the obvious idea that there's already something I'm doing that I like doing, so what the hell is the problem with just doing that?

Well, this is territory we've touched on before. I'm a bar-raiser from way back: no matter what good thing we are talking about, I usually adjust immediately to think of that as the baseline. Then I'm like -- OK life, but what have you done for me lately?

I'm also a first-derivative sort of girl. It's not enough to have happiness and pleasure, you have to feel that the pleasure and happiness are on the upswing. You can't just do a fun thing. The fun thing has to get bigger, stronger, better, FUNNER.

I also have a problem with a pleasant day. What, I'm just going to go do a fun thing because .. it was fun? What's the point of that?

But it takes two to tango, and it's not just me making this problem. Remember, we're in the great fun crisis of the 21st century. No one does things because they're fun anymore. You can't even walk into a gym these days without someone assaulting you about what your goals are and how if you don't have goals you'll never move forward to achievement.

The whole tracking/life hacking mood of modern life is like "Oh, you're doing that thing? Don't you want to do that thing better? Or do a different better thing? Are you sure you're doing the thing better than other people and the best you can possible do yourself?"

What the hell happened to doing things just because ... they're things you want to do? Does that concept not even make sense for us anymore?

What really gets me though, at the end of the day, is that having thought about these things, and seen through the difficulties, and actually written it all out -- you'd think I could put it all behind me, just go to the stupid class, and have a good time, and listen to DJ Fresh and think about the blue disco lights.

But I can't. Such is the relative impotence of rational thought.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Château Rouge Experience: I'm An Outsider Here But It Feels Like Home

Château Rouge. I took this last winter but you get the idea.

I've been in Paris for two weeks, and lately when I come to Paris I always stay in the same place, and this place just happens to be in a neighborhood called Château Rouge.

It's an area with a lot of people who come from, or have roots in, Francophone Africa, and there are lots of shops with West African food, music, clothing, cosmetics, and so on.

It's also an area with an intense street life scene. During the day there are crowds of people in the street. Some of them seem to be just hanging around with their pals. Some of them are selling things: cellphones, handbags, cigarettes, belts, roasted peanuts, a mysterious vegetable that looks like a mini-eggplant, other things.

There are like four butcher shops in a one-block radius, and they do things the old fashioned way -- so if you come out in the morning, you might find a truck with four giant carcasses hanging, waiting to be brought in and cut up, while people are hanging around, talking to the workers and to each other.

In some ways, I am very far from being a part of this community. For one thing, I often don't even know what is going on. Those people selling mini-eggplants: what's going on there? There are plenty of food stores -- are these people really just selling a vegetable? How can they make any money that way, especially given that so many people do it? Is it cover for some other kind of exchange?

Often at the corner there are women hanging around. I'd assumed there was something sex-work related going on, but then the other day I saw a couple deep in conversation with one of them over the contents of a strange looking box -- like a child's jewelry box, or a super-fancy cigar box. WTF?

I tell you one thing: I'm not going to go around asking a lot of questions. I speak some French, but I am not really fluent, and in my experience, you have to have some pretty sophisticated language subtlety not to seem like an asshole if you wander into some world from outside and start questioning everyone.

In fact, all the questions I can even think of seem obviously rude. What am I going to do, say "Are you really selling mini-eggplants and how is that a money-making venture or is there really something else going on?' I don't think so.

So: there's definitely a sense in which I walk down the street and people are doing there thing and I'm doing my thing and other than basics like holding doors, there's not too much interaction.

But the weird thing about it is this: not only do I really like this neighborhood, I actually feel kind of at home here. Like when I've been out and about in Paris all day, and I get out of the Château Rouge Metro station into the crowds of people spilling off the sidewalks and filling the streets, talking and shouting, trying to sell me a cell phone or some weird perfume, I kind of relax a little, and think to myself, "OK, back home."

For a while this feeling puzzled me a bit, and I didn't trust it. I wondered if maybe I just felt judged by white Parisians, and projected certain attitudes onto them, and in Château Rouge felt the absence of that.

But over time, I came to realize that the Château Rouge Experience is actually very like an experience that was a big and important part of my childhood. My grandparents were immigrants from Italy who settled near Boston, and when I was little, often on the weekends I'd accompany my father as he brought my grandmother to shop at the Little Italy markets in Boston's famous "North End."

The scene was always chaos. People were selling all kinds of food and other things. I remember lots of aimless shouting and joking around, and every purchase came with lots of haggling -- or some kind of discussion I was too young to follow. Usually I would get a crushed ice treat or something, which made my day. 

Even as a kid I remember the chaos of it drove my father nuts -- the way you couldn't just walk from point A to point B because there were a million people in your way, the sense of people just hanging around, not really there to do something specific, the way every transaction took forever.  My father was a man who loved order -- a man who regularly obsessed about the importance of trains running on time, even though he drove a car to work -- and the North End was designed to get under his skin.

Of course, I didn't like to see my father unhappy. But otherwise I remember our trips with great fondness. I liked to see all the different things and different foods and different people, and it always felt so full of life there.

My mother reminded me recently of something from my childhood I hadn't thought about in ages: that sometimes in the North End, people who had to do business in a shop but couldn't find parking would just stop and leave their cars -- in the middle of a narrow street, so all the traffic behind them would just have to wait. My father would get so mad, he'd start pounding his fist on the car armrest in frustration.

Then just the other day I was walking back in Château Rouge, and there was a van in the middle of the road, and it was empty, the driver obviously having gotten out to do business in some shop and having left the van in the road. Behind the van where four cars, and their drivers were freaking out, four people pounding on four car horns in four different keys.

Château Rouge: just like home!

About a week ago, some people put up a mural in the neighborhood. It's in the photo below. I get that there's a Red Castle in it -- literally, a "Château Rouge." But a Rubik's cube? But what the hell else is going on in this image?

Well anyway -- I like it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Philosophical Melancholia

Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I, via Wikimedia Commons

Though I am, overall, a much happier person than I was when I was young, as an adult I've experienced a a lot of what I like to think of as melancholia. By melancholia I mean some mix of sadness, low life force, discouragement, and a feeling of "Oh, whatever, what's the point."

I suppose my melancholia bears some relationship the modern problem we think of as depression, but I don't think they are the same thing. I don't have any of the typical symptoms always mentioned in connection with depression. I have an excellent appetite; I sleep well and exercise a lot; I get things done and with most things I'm not even really a procrastinator. If I go through an internet depression quiz/checklist, it might say that if you check six out eight boxes checked that's a warning sign -- but I'll have only checked one box: the one that says "I feel sad, like life has no point."

To me, nothing captures this feeling better than Albrecht Dürer's 1514 engraving, "Melencolia I," at the top of this post.

Because my rise in melancholic feelings seems to correlate with the time I've spent studying philosophy, I've often wondered if there is something about philosophical thinking -- or about a certain kind of thinking, more broadly -- that encourages melancholia.

And I think in my own case, anyway, the answer is yes. In fact, I think there are direct causal connections between my thinking philosophically and my feeling melancholic. I'm sure the mechanisms are complex, but here are a few thoughts.

One difficulty, for me at least, seems to be the effect of constantly forcing myself to take a perspective from which I am at best just one person among others and at worst a speck in the universe. I don't mean the kind of destabilization you get looking at the stars or something -- it's not, I think, the mere fact of being unspecial relative to everything else, it's more the shift in perspective of caring, of thinking about what matters or what is important.

For example, like most people, I'd expect, I have the experience that from within my life, the little things that make up my little world assume huge significance and importance to me. Relationships, intellectual projects, of course -- but even things like how should I wear my hair, whether to see a movie, whether to cook or go out to eat, whether I should try harder to learn French -- absorb my mind, fill it up, tie me to life.

But even one minute of a certain kind of reflection shows my concerns to be of virtually no importance whatsoever in the grand scheme of things.

Sometimes, they seem worse than insignificant: there are horrible things going on in the world, injustice and suffering, and you're seriously thinking about hairstyles, movies, and treats?

Other times, they seem like mere moves in a massive social scheme that has little to do with me or what I might "choose" or not choose to do. Probably you've all had this experience: you take one step back from concepts like "hairstyle," "movie" and even "food" -- and you find yourself in a dizzying array of considerations about sexism and beauty norms and Hollywood and glamorization and animal rights and environmentalism and so on and so forth etc. etc. etc.

These are all fine and important thoughts to have. My problem is that in doing philosophy, I form the habits of mind that make that dizzying array not so much a place I visit occasionally to understand the world, but more like my inner mental home. And as an inner mental home, it's horrible. At least for me, it's a profoundly alienating and cold place to spend a lot of time -- like trying to live on the Moon and breathe oxygen through a straw.

Then, too, there's a sense in which philosophical reflection itself often seems to take the form of "what is the point." How ought we to live? Why do this or that? Well -- doesn't this often come to down, "Ultimately, what is the point?"

In some contexts I think this is an OK question to ask. But the problem is that it's a question that, if you're not careful, will spread like kudzu through your days and nights, leaving you staring blankly at the ceiling, trapped in a singularity of philosophical interrogation, until, if you're lucky, you're rescued by friends, or hunger, or some everyday obligation like doing the laundry that just can't be put off any longer.

None of this is to say philosophical thinking isn't necessary, important, and good, because I absolutely think it is. It's just that too much of it might make a person sad, as I think it does me.

If you, too, have the symptoms of philosophical melancholia -- which can, of course, strike anyone at any time -- my advice is: though it might seem tempting, do not try to think yourself out of it.

Just put down the thoughts and walk away.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why Blaming "Corporate Greed" Is Misplaced and Naive

Edvard Munch, Workers on their Way Home, via Wikimedia Commons

It always bugs me when I see references to "corporate greed" as part of an explanation for why some bad worker-related thing is happening. It especially bugs me when lefties and progressives refer to it. Because it seems to me that referring to "corporate greed" is basically buying in to the whole "individual responsibility" anti-legislation anti-labor rhetoric that lefties and progressives usually think of as "the other side."

I was reminded of this last week when the New York Times ran this story describing how Disney laid off all these tech workers and replaced them with people from other countries on H-1B visas who would be cheaper to pay. The kicker was that to receive their severance packages, the employees had spend three months training their replacements.

In the commentary on this story, people regularly mentioned corporate greed as part of the explanation for how something like this could happen (see, e. g., the comments to this blog post). The idea being, I guess, that an ethical corporation treats its labor force as people -- people they're in a certain relationship with, and to whom they owe consideration and obligations.

It's a nice idea, but I think it fails to grapple with the deeply competitive set-up of capitalism as it exists in our world -- where it's basically guaranteed that if you're not equally ruthless as your competition, you'll fail.

In fact, in the business section of papers like the Times, the rhetoric is all about how to be nimbler and more flexible than your competition, so you can increase profits, so you can make shareholders happy. Especially if your industry is competitive, if you can't do those things, you're over.

So now, faced with that situation, the reason corporations are supposed to treat their employees well even if it costs more is ... that the people in charge are somehow good inside? And who is supposed to say "the buck stops here," exactly? The middle manager who's been charged with cutting costs? Is that person supposed to say "Oh yes, I know I'll be fired, but it's OK." Or the president of the board? Is that person supposed to say "Oh yes, I know the competition will undercut us with such lower prices that our company will go under, but it's OK."

This seems to me the same kind of "individual responsibility" thinking that props up so many ideas I find offensive, that somehow each person is supposed to rise above the crazy social pressures they find themselves in, that somehow if you decide to do something because you find it's the best of a bunch of shitty options, that somehow "Oh, well you *chose* it so you're *stuck with it*."

The pressures of capitalism are long known. Adam Smith understood that businesses would have huge incentives to collude with one another and misbehave in various ways, leading to bad outcomes. Smith figured that with the right laws and institutional frameworks, you could prevent that misbehavior. 

I don't know if that's true or if the problem goes deeper than that. But I do think appealing to the inner moral compass of individual business persons is pretty much a non-starter.

Monday, June 1, 2015

"Welcome To Me" Is Funny And Not Stupid. So Why Don't People Want To See It?

Kristin Wiig as Alice Krieg, in "Welcome to Me."

Last weekend, I went to see that movie "Welcome to Me." I'd never seen a movie or anything else with Kristin Wiig, so obviously I've been living under a rock or something.

In case you don't know, the movie is about a person named Alice who has borderline personality disorder and who wins a lottery, decides to go off her meds, then makes a series of troubling decisions -- including the decision to spend part of her fortune bankrolling her own TV show, "Welcome to Me," that is all about herself and her life.

Can I say right now: I think this an outstanding premise for a movie. Doesn't any one else? We'll get to that in a moment.

Against all odds, Alice's show becomes popular. There's a great scene in which a young nerdy graduate student interviews her about her radical new approach to visual arts. What was up with the raw emotional life reenactments? And why did those have cross-racial casting? Was she influenced by Cindy Sherman? Alice: Oh, you mean from Laverne and Shirley?

I loved that sequence, because the student's reflections seemed both stupid and silly but also interesting and true, which so many things are -- but you never get to really say so because you'll sound pretentious or you'll hurt somebody's feelings or something. It's brilliant that eventually Alice does come to see herself as an artist.

Eventually, as you can imagine, things spiral out of control, and I'm sure I'm not revealing anything unexpected when I say there are Life Lessons and Reflections on True Friendship and Subplots of Loss and Redemption.

My favorite thing about this movie was that it was funny and sad, sometimes at the same time. Doesn't it seem like funny and sad is becoming an endangered species in movies? Why is that?

There's a great scene where Alice is organizing a TV reenactment of a moment from her childhood where someone was mean to her, and it is ridiculously over the top with costumes, period details from the 1980s, and Alice's outsized need to share her internal pain with a TV audience. It is very funny. Suddenly something goes wrong with the reenactment, and Alice bursts into tears. It is very sad. But it is also still very funny.

It's not funny and sad in the mean way, where you're laughing at someone. It's funny and sad in the good way, the same way it's funny and sad that someone can simultaneously see themselves as a TV superstar and also be crushed because one classmate mocked them a million years ago. That dichotomy is certainly not particular to mental illness -- in fact it seems to me to pretty much sum up the human condition.

I also loved the fact that Alice-on-her-meds and Alice-off-her-meds were clearly the same person. It would have been so easy to make some stupid, pandering, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde bullshit. Alice off her meds gets upset, and is worse at making decisions that she doesn't regret later. But otherwise she's the same Alice.

The big question about this movie, and the one I've returned to ponder over the last few days, is why so few people want to see it. Sure, it's not Hangover III, but it's not 45 minutes of someone eating a mushroom. It's not even "My Dinner with André."

Most movies I like that no one else likes I know immediately why. They're European, or they have subtitles, or they're too thinky with not enough action, or whatever. But this is a comedy, with positive reviews, a famous and attractive movie star, sex and sight gags, and a great modern premise relating to fame and insecurity and all the important twenty-first-century things.

So WTF? Why a very limited theater release with simultaneous hoopla streaming?

Is it because mental illness is still such a scary topic to people? Is it because funny and sad has become too difficult to fit into modern life? Is it because it's about the life of a woman, and, god forbid, actually passes the Bechdel test? Is there some new thing where only guys being gross and aggressive counts as funny? 

I honestly don't know.