Sunday, June 08, 2014

For Your Eyes Only

Robert Sapolsky:

As a species, we crave status, endlessly keeping track of who's more important. This is challenging, given that we participate in so many realms of comparison simultaneously. Who's richest, smartest, best-looking? Who's got the newer car, house or spouse? Who can drink everyone under the table, who's the most pious at church?

Much of our gossip revolves around status relations. It's a way to reach consensus about rankings and to decide which of them counts more: "Man, she couldn't litigate a traffic ticket, but she's the most awesome foosball player I've ever seen."

Gossip about status, of course, also takes the form of signaling. To answer my own question from the previous post, no, for a social animal like homo sapiens, there's no practical way to be completely free of the ability to send and receive coded messages through even our most mundane activities. Only the physical solitude of the purest hermit or the mental isolation of the extreme autistic would qualify as an escape, and that level of self-containment is a price almost no sane person would want to pay. Even Socrates, in his singleminded devotion to the higher goal of seeking otherworldly truth, had to be aware that his "What? I'm just asking questions to figure out what the Oracle could have possibly meant. Why is everyone getting so upset?" gambit could appear quite disingenuous — a very subtle, inverted way of asserting his superiority, not by elevating but by ostensibly humbling himself, only to then demonstrate everyone else's failure to even rise to his lowly level. "It's not that I'm all that smart, it's just that the rest of you are really fucking dumb." Existing in a social environment makes it inevitable — actions and words will always signify more than their mere face value. If deeper layers of significance don't exist, then they will have to be invented.

Jonathan Gottschall expresses this to an even more pessimistic degree in a recent book review:

I was not many pages into Spent before I found myself helplessly attuned to Miller’s own “narcissistic self-displays.” Miller reminds us frequently of his elite education, tells us that he owns several thousand books, lets on about his sophisticated taste in avant-garde art, makes offhand displays of his mastery of musical jargon (“timbral richness,” “isorhythmic motets,” “polyphony”), stresses his impeccable liberal credentials, and shows off his authentic verbal flair, his cosmopolitanism, and his soaring IQ (he argues —tendentiously —that elite university degrees function as covert IQ guarantees). So Spent functions not only as an attempt to popularize a vein of scientific research, but also as a means of selling the audience on the virtues of its creator: Geoffrey Miller—a smart guy, a bit of a Renaissance man.

There are two things to say about this. First, it is Geoffrey Miller, Renaissance man, who gives Spent so much of its winning personality, its narrative tang, and its consistent good humor. Second, Spent cued me in not only to its author’s self-marketing, but also to my own. For what is a book review if not—at least in part—a narcissistic self-display? What am I doing now, if not flaunting my penetration, my learning, my tough-minded yet charitable judgment, and—most narcissistically of all—my ability to take a decade of Miller’s life as a scholar, scientist, and close observer of American pop culture, and wrap it up neatly in a 1,200-word package—complete with an artful, preening flourish at the close?

Well, I guess that's one way to look at it, but stated this reductively, it seems more than a little unfair, like the classic psychological trope of reducing art and culture to a clever attempt to get laid. Not every assertion of identity is shallow and shamefully needy. Sometimes people announce their interests and values for the simple sake of attracting like-minded companionship, not out of a desire to exclude and negatively judge others. Sometimes girls and guys just wanna have fun. And sometimes people just want to say what they've gotta say because they think it's true and it needs to be said.