Sunday, March 01, 2015

As Below, So Above

John Gray:

“In most of our versions of paradise, sacred or secular, heaven is a place where dreams come true,” Garrett writes. True enough, yet what he omits to note is that human dreams of perfection are essentially contradictory. We may dream of a cosmos governed by moral laws but we also want one in which our cherished personal attachments can sometimes be exempted from these laws. We would like ourselves and those we love to be spared ageing and death; but if our wishes were granted, whether by divine decree or by means of the new technologies that futurists in Silicon Valley are coming up with, we would cease to be the creatures we are and become unrecognisable to one another. Our inability to form any coherent view of the afterlife results from it being a projection of needs and impulses that are irreconcilably at odds.

Now, as in the past, there are many who look to another life to resolve these conflicts, but the anarchy from which they seek to escape is inside themselves. 

In Jesus's world, the Son of Man would arrive in his kingdom, the last would be made first, and each person would be repaid according to their deeds. In Marx's world, the communist society would regulate the general production and allow each person to try their hand at being a hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic, according to their whims. In Nicholas Carr's world, looking backward rather than forward this time, personal technology has distracted us from our authentic selves, and if we can just plug our ears with wax and ignore its siren song, we can get back to whatever deep, meaningful things we were assuredly doing with our lives before the mid-'90s. In these sorts of narratives, imagination fails at the crucial moment and leaves us with a vague "happily ever after" denouement, where we have healed and become whole. Once we reach this state, then what? No one ever says. It seems to be assumed that we'll know an ideal state when we reach it, and having done so, we'll be content to bask in it indefinitely.

I, on the other hand, suggest to you that most people don't actually know themselves well enough to know what would make them content, and even if they were to luck into contentment somehow, boredom and mischief would soon drive them back to dissatisfaction again. More money in the checking account? A prettier appearance? More time to read good books? The dictatorship of the proletariat? The Second Coming? It doesn't matter what you give them; people will always find new ways to make themselves unhappy again. However beautiful a design you manage to weave from your circumstances, the threads will immediately begin unraveling. You may even start picking at them yourself.

Kenan Malik credits Hegel with the insight, overlooked by previous philosophers, that humanity was above all else a work in progress. Human nature did not burst onto the scene fully formed as if winking into existence from a vacuum; individually, it was shaped through interactions with others, and socially, it was shaped through the evolving stages of history's dialectic. Having grasped that humanity's story was born in motion and conflict, though, Hegel gave in to the temptation to envision it eventually coming to rest on a static plateau, deciding, conveniently enough, that the historical dialectic was destined to reach its final resolution in the Prussian state. Many others since then have likewise found themselves unable to conceive of human existence outside the self-serving conventions of narrative structure. Whether they see the ideal human subject as needing to be discovered in the past or created in the future, they all still assume that the meaning of existence reveals itself in the conclusion. But a chord ringing out interminably would be the death of music. A pose held indefinitely would turn even the most graceful dancer into a statue. The motion is the meaning.

The human spirit is a shark with just enough awareness to turn one eye up toward the light shimmering down and dream of a world without constant motion, the scent of blood, and mindlessly gnashing teeth. The denizens of the world above know better, though. In our world, we are required to swim forever — in currents of our own making, if need be — or else die.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Girls Will Be Boys And Boys Will Be Girls; It's A Mixed-Up, Muddled-Up, Shook-Up World

Charlotte Allen:

Not that you would know it from the volume of headlines these days, but transgender people constitute a tiny sliver of the population: A 2011 study by the UCLA law school’s Williams Institute estimated that there are only about 700,000 self-identified transgenders in the United States, with perhaps a third of those taking active steps to alter their physical appearance. That contrasts to the more than 9 million people​—​3.5 percent of the population​—​who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, according to the Williams Institute...But despite the nearly infinitesimal percentage of transgenders in a country of more than 300 million, they have managed to secure an enviable status in recent years as subjects of lavish media, legislative, and professional attention. 

It's a long and fairly interesting article, and as you might expect, given the source, it emphasizes a bit more of a skeptical perspective toward the dominant trans narrative than most of what you'll see on the web. I just found this part slightly amusing for plainly implying what is usually discreetly passed over in silence: aside from the worth trans people may have as human beings entitled to the same civil rights as anyone else, they clearly have a lot of symbolitical cash value among those who treat politics as fashion, i.e. online progressives. Obviously, it's not the sort of thing anyone would ever admit, but equally obviously, there's a lot of status to be gained from being seen around the scene championing the latest cutting-edge cause, whether you're personally invested in it or not. Those declining numbers indicate that it's going to be extremely labor-intensive to find and extract new civil rights resources in the near future, though.

Dirty Institutions

Brad Warner:

So back to my friend and his pitch. After I said some of this he said something like, “Well if you don’t know what you want…” This struck me as both very weird and yet totally expected. The fact is I do know what I want. It’s just that in a world where wealth and fame is the highest object of desire, the idea of someone not wanting that sounds the same as not knowing what you want. If you knew what you wanted you would understand that what you want is wealth and fame.

I really feel like all that stuff about embracing poverty and avoiding greed that the Buddhists talk about isn’t just something that’s supposed to make a person all pure and holy. It’s actually advice on how to live a better life. The more you demand from society in terms of wealth, the more society demands from you. If you don’t deliver, you suffer.

"Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society." Thoreau said that. He could have been talking about Bill Watterson, who told his former art professor why he had no interest in merchandising Calvin and Hobbes: "Enough is enough, and I have enough." I find that to be a very useful mantra. Seriously — it's like a glass-half-full perspective switch. It's very easy to spend all your time thinking about all the things you lack. It's not really any less true to focus on all the ways in which you have more than you even need, and doing so sometimes even improves your mood.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Yeezus Christ Pose

Sady Doyle:

Being a Kanye West defender in 2015 is a thankless task. Yeezy makes it hard: he’s frequently offensive and (I’m told) deeply unlikable. He’s been called arrogant, narcissistic, materialistic, pretentious, rude, insensitive, and insane. But this is exactly why I like him.

Kanye West keeps making points that are more or less correct. But to avoid engaging with those points, the media draws focus onto his personality. We call him a crazy man so that we don’t have to hear what he’s saying.

Kanye can mess up. Feminism, particularly, tends to be something he stumbles over. While he very vocally defends Kim and Beyonce from all critics, he also portrays women in his songs as sexual territory to be claimed in battles between men (“I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse / come on her Hampton blouse,” etcetera). His most recent comments about his ex, model Amber Rose, are a good example of how Kanye can slut-shame and objectify with the worst of them. I should be outraged. I am disappointed. But where some may see irredeemable misogyny, I see something more like human complexity. Admittedly, being a white woman flavors my reactions. As a man of color, Kanye is both privileged and oppressed.

If you are political in public, you too will experience some tiny fraction of what it is to be Kanye. Everyone who writes about oppression online knows the baiting, the casual abuse, and the desire for something your enemies can use to craft an unflattering narrative. Feminists online are subjected to such harassment that many are beginning to retire. You know who hasn’t retired? Kanye West has never once been shut up by public disapproval, although the public has disapproved of him, loudly, for over a decade.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

If They Can't Take A Joke

Justin E.H. Smith:

What is wrong with wanting to talk about things? Feminist Bingo is about consolidating a group, through jocular means, around a set of shared values. These values concern the delimitation of acceptable forms of opposition: what a domestic partner, or a friend or a work acquaintance, may legitimately say. To the left of Jon Stewart, then, we witness a preoccupation with defining the boundaries of the group (if you don’t share the joke, it’s safe to say you’re out), and an extremely illiberal desire to narrow the limits of debate. There is a core ideological commitment here which holds that anyone outside the group who "wants to talk about things" really only wants to sneak in, within the belly of the Trojan horse of speech, yet another assertion of his unjust power.

...The earnest ones do what they can to build a perfect society, but always come up short. And so they panic, and come to believe that they can correct for the shortcomings by suppressing mockery of their effort. The mocker knows that that suppression is the very thing that prevents him from fully living, and resorts to humor as the sole available portal to the sort of freedom that the earnest ones see as a threat. The expectations one might have had for life prove to be strained, and collapse into nothing. Life is a joke. This is a disappointment, of course, yet there is liberation in acknowledging it. This is the form of liberation the earnest ones, the straight-faced state-builders and regulators, cannot even consider. And this is why they hate jokes, do not understand them, and are afraid of them.

It was difficult to choose which parts to excerpt, since the essay covers a fair amount of ground, and it's all good reading. Nonetheless, I think these two paragraphs convey what I feel is the general spirit of it. Our modern-day moralizers believe that humor can be tamed, yoked, and forced to labor exclusively for progressive causes. Wiser heads have always known that humor is a way of coping with the fundamental, inherent unfairness of life, and both the humor and the unfairness transcend any particular political agendas. The moralizers will either learn to relax and play along with the joke, or they'll become increasingly bitter, petty authoritarians.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Euthyphro 2.0

Massimo Pigliucci:

Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer has gotten onto the same “science can determine moral values” bandwagon as other scientistically-minded writers such as Sam Harris. But this commentary isn’t directly about Shermer’s latest book [1], and even less about Harris (about whose ideas I’ve written more than enough [2]). Rather, it concerns a more specific claim about science-driven moral progress made by Michael in a recent article that appeared in the libertarian Reason magazine, entitled “Are We Becoming Morally Smarter? The connection between increasing IQs, decreasing violence, and economic liberalism” [3]. The piece is an interesting mix of good points, good reasoning, bad points, and bad reasoning. I am going to try to sort things out in the interest of stimulating further discussion.

Yeah, I saw recently that Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature and Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape had apparently produced this bouncing baby boy (I didn't even know they were dating!). Judging by this review (which was pretty fun to read), I doubt Shermer's going to bring any more to the discussion than Harris did, which wasn't terribly impressive itself.

In fact, speaking of Harris, Kenan Malik offered what I thought to be a definitively damning summary of the problems facing these attempts to ground moral values in science:

Science cannot determine values because one cannot scientifically assess what is right and wrong without having already constructed a moral framework within which to evaluate the empirical data. Or, as Huxley put it, science 'may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about, but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before'.

For Harris, as for many of the New Atheists, the desire to root morality in science derives from an aspiration to demonstrate the redundancy of religion to ethical thinking. The irony is that the classic argument against looking to God as the source of moral values — the Euthyphro dilemma — is equally applicable to the claim that science is, or should be, the arbiter of good and evil. In Plato's Euthyphro, Socrates asks the question: do the gods love the good because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods? If the good is good simply because gods choose it, then the notion of the good becomes arbitrary. If, on the other hand, the gods choose the good because it is good, then the good is independent of the gods.

The same dilemma faces contemporary defenders of the claim that science defines moral values. Harris argues that wellbeing can be defined through data gained through fMRI scans, physiological observation, pharmacological measures, and other such techniques. Such studies may be able to tell us which brain states, neurotransmitters or hormones calibrate with particular real-world conditions. But whether those states, neurotransmitters or hormones are seen as indicators of wellbeing depends on whether we consider those real-life conditions as expressions of wellbeing. If wellbeing is defined simply by the existence of certain neural states, or by the presence of particular hormones or neurotransmitters, or because of certain evolutionary dispositions, then the notion of wellbeing is arbitrary. If such a definition is not to be arbitrary, then it can only be because the neural state, or the hormonal or neurotransmitter level, or the evolutionary disposition, correlates with a notion of wellbeing or of the good, which has been arrived at independently. The Euthyphro dilemma can no more be evaded by scientists claiming to have objective answers to questions of right and wrong than it can by theologians.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

There Goes The Neighborhood

"Always remember, young Strix", my grandpappy used to say as he bounced me on his knee, "it's no coincidence that 'semiotics' and 'emoticons' are damn near anagrams." Wise words, indeed:

But with new edition, emoji commentators (myself included) asked: Where are the emoji for people of color? For while there were hundreds of emoji, and more than 100 different representations of human bodies or faces, nearly all were white or a “neutral” yellow. Only two—an apparent East Asian boy, and an apparent South Asian man—seemed to be people of color. There were no non-white women whatsoever, and no black people.

Then, in November of last year, the Unicode Consortium made a quiet announcement in its draft of the new Unicode standard. Different skin tones would be introduced to the emoji standard through a toggle board: A user could click and hold on an emoji while typing it and a menu would coming up, letting them type it in one of five skin tones. (The tones correspond to the Fitzpatrick scale, a numerical method of categorizing human skin pigmentation.)

“People all over the world want to have emoji that reflect more human diversity, especially for skin tone,” said the draft.

Great. Without the background context consisting of the shared, unconscious assumption of white supremacy, how are my friends and I supposed to communicate with whimsical symbols of basic emotions now?

Now, anyone can make the easy joke about how, even as we speak, sites like Salon, Alternet, Vox and the like are in a race to see who can be the first to publish an article about how white privilege is being able to take for granted one's majority status in a crowded room full of emoji. I, on the other hand, prefer to stalk bigger game. I'm shielding my eyes and looking toward the horizon, anticipating the inevitable article analyzing the phenomenon of white flight from emoji use, dating back to this policy change. For that one, I think we'll need the New Republic, or maybe the Atlantic itself.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Believin' All The Lies That They're Tellin' Ya, Buyin' All The Products That They're Sellin' Ya

Some Marxists call the factors that interfere with judgment “false consciousness.” They argue that false consciousness accounts for the failure of revolutionary ideology to attract adherents among the working class in the developed world. On this view, it wasn’t outright repression or censorship that prevented the workers from adopting a Marxist perspective. It is was the subtle and concealed influence of capital on their ability to exercise their capacity to make their own decisions.

These tensions in Mill’s defense of intellectual freedom were recognized in the 19th century. What we now call political correctness was first articulated in the 1960s by the brilliant German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse’s achievement was to turn Mill’s argument for free discussion, at least in a modern Western society, against its explicit conclusion.

Marcuse undertakes this inversion, worthy of a black belt in dialectical reasoning, in the 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance.” In it, Marcuse argues that the marketplace of ideas can’t function as Mill expected, because the game is rigged in favor of those who are already powerful. Some ideas enjoy underserved appeal due to tradition or the prestige of their advocates. And “consumers” are not really free to choose, given the influence of advertising and the pressures of social and economic need. Thus the outcome of formally free debate is actually predetermined. The ideas that win will generally be those that justify the existing order; those that lose will be those that challenge the structure.

This prong of the argument is close to the standard critique of false consciousness. But Marcuse links it to Mill’s distinction between those who are and are not capable of participating in and benefitting from the unrestricted exchange of ideas.

According to Marcuse, many people who appear to be rational, self-determining men and women are actually in a condition of ideological enforced immaturity. They are therefore incapable of exercising the kind of judgment that Mill’s argument presumes. In order to make debate meaningful, they need to be properly educated. This education is the responsibility of those who have already shown themselves to be capable of thinking for themselves—in this case, left-wing intellectuals rather than Victorian colonial administrators.

One might wonder how either Mill or Marcuse could be so sure that their kind of people knew what was best for others. The answer is that they regarded the truth as obvious.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Writing That Wears A White Coat

Ray Monk:

The search for explanations and theories in philosophy, Wittgenstein believed, was linked with this worship of science. Intoxicated by the success of science, philosophers had forgotten that there was another kind of understanding. 'People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them', he once wrote in a notebook, 'poets, musicians etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them — that does not occur to them.'

Russell, of course, was horrified by this attitude. 'The later Wittgenstein', he wrote, 'seems to have gotten tired of serious thinking and to have invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary.' If one thinks that 'serious thinking' and 'science' are the same thing, then this remark is precisely right.

In a recent series of emails, Arthur unknowingly, almost eerily in his precision, echoed this very stance:

What applies to Dante applies, on a lower level of course, to the writers cited by Watson. Kafka’s work is not “robbed of its meaning” by the obsolescence of Freudianism, it is far too weird and original, pre-Freudian and post-Freudian, for that. What galls me here is that uncomprehending and condescending assumption that artists are just wayward students of intellectuals—as if they were not themselves intellectuals, and highly independent and original ones, at that. (Inside every artist is an intellectual, the saying goes—but not vice-versa.) What bites my butt is the assumption that the kind of writing that wears a white coat or talks about wages and surplus value is the model of knowledge and adult thinking, while art is just what happens when the kids are let out into the playground at recess.

Now, if you're like me, you may have had an "A-ha!" moment when confronted with such clear and elegant imagery. Even though there is no argument being put forth, technically speaking, the limitations of a scientistic approach become suddenly and vividly apparent. It becomes obvious why, for example, looking at fMRI images of someone's brain as they look at pieces of art will tell us nothing useful about the nature or meaning of art. The parallel lines of artistic and scientific understanding will never meet. Wittgenstein seems to have had something like this in mind. Monk again:

Analogously, in his later work, Wittgenstein treats all philosophical doctrines as confusions, though now he thinks the confusion has arisen because, as he puts it, 'a picture held us captive'. His task is to free us from that picture. Because the picture that held us captive and that gave rise to the philosophical problem is assumed in everything we say, it cannot usually be dislodged by argument. It is, as it were, too deep for that. What is required to free us from the picture that holds us captive is an enriched imagination, and this cannot be given to us through argument, it must be acquired through, as it were, therapy. Wittgenstein's later work, then is aimed at the pre-philosophical, rather than the philosophical, level. It addresses, not our argumentative faculties, but our imagination.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Gibbons' Law

As three men with hats, sunglasses and beards stand in close proximity to each other, the probability that a passerby will make a joke about a ZZ Top tribute band approaches 1.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee

I hardly know what to say about a world in which a ventose fraud like Slavoj Žižek is taken seriously as a leftist visionary and a moral panic profiteer like Anita Sarkeesian is hailed as a feminist leader. Thankfully, when it comes to Sarkeesian, at least, Liana Kerzner has said more than 23,000 words over a five-part series of posts explaining why the modern-day Tipper Gore is every bit the tendentious hack you suspected she was. I'm not even a gamer, and I found it engrossing, so perhaps you might care to give it a look-see. (Hat tip to Will Shetterly.)