Archive for March, 2008

Paradigm Shift

Posted: March 23, 2008 in Culture, Education, Philosophy

This post is recycled from a lengthy comment made on Morris Berman’s blog Dark Ages America (after the book of the same name). I have edited it slightly since it no longer has the context of that comment thread and I included two of Prof. Berman’s objections from his response to my comment.

In a blog post about the purpose of a humanities education, Prof. Berman provides two numbered lists of facts and factors regarding the deplorable state of education in America. It has become almost a fetish among the cognoscenti to iterate examples of plebeian ignorance and misapplied sense of value, which provides an odd psychological satisfaction. Similarly, prophesying the imminent collapse of social, governmental, and economic structures and institutions imparts a bizarre nihilistic thrill for many able to peer a little bit over the horizon. Frankly, they’re both well-established postures. Of course, in the long run, societies, governments, and economies do eventually collapse, so such prophets are proved correct, though usually not in the timeframes they foresee. Current conditions make it very seductive to assert that we really are on the brink of collapse, that it’s different this time. That’s hard to dispute, so I won’t try. What’s interesting is the number of intelligent, educated people who now think of themselves as “doomers” — modern-day Cassandras reporting our demise but who are largely ignored by the masses, who are busy getting on with life (perhaps in the very fashion that will seal our doom). I fall somewhere between the extremes of ignoring what’s occurring and relishing reports of ruin.

Nonetheless, I feel a deep sadness that we’re quickly abandoning the Enlightenment legacy that has served us for some 400 years. Perhaps it deserves to be left behind, considering how it’s built on a lust for power and dominance over all of nature and indeed each other. Science has by now bequeathed to us the technical power to wreck the environment, which we’ve accomplished handily in a modest 150 years. I can’t imagine a worse injustice. Jim Kunstler writes that people can be divided into two groups: “those who believe we will ‘high-tech’ our way out of this predicament; and those who believe we’ll organize our way out.” He refers to economic collapse, but I suspect collapse of the biosphere may be the trump card — the bigger problem from which we cannot escape.

Abandonment of the questions posed by the humanities and revaluation of human life on mostly financial terms was discussed by Karl Marx in The 1844 Manuscripts, where he states that money is the “visible divinity” in a capitalist world. This is further described by Daniel Pinchbeck:

By possessing the property of buying everything, by possessing the property of appropriating all objects, money is thus the object of eminent possession. The universality of its property is the omnipotence of its being. It therefore functions as almighty being. Money is the pimp between man’s need and the object, between his life and his means of life. But that which mediates my life for me, also mediates the existence of other people for me. For me it is the other person.

The establishment of money as the ultimate measure of value has lured us into a trap. Our orientation is no longer as participants in communities or as a humble part of nature. We’re now free (condemned, really) to exploit nature and compete against each other in a Darwinian fight for survival, or more properly, struggle for personal wealth. The inevitable perversion of this new orientation is greed, loss of empathy, and narcissistic concern solely with ourselves. The best of Enlightenment thought was a projection of the human mind out into the world and the universe. That’s mostly gone now, replaced by inwardness, radical egotism, and sybaritism. For example, recent news of the discovery of a solar system like our own is disdained as irrelevant and a waste of time to think about now that computers and virtual life technology have created a program called Spore that allows people to evolve their own virtual life forms. Discovery of actual extraterrestrial life no longer holds so much interest because now we have very cool video games.

The extraordinary incuriosity of the masses toward learning may be a harbinger of the completion of a cycle away from the Cartesian mind toward what Rousseau called the “sleep of reason,” where a utopian minimalist state is characterized by “abandonment of books and other accouterments of intellect in order to cultivate enjoyment of the senses and good health” [borrowing here from E.O. Wilson]. Oddly, this cultural drift may be the very thing described in Berman’s final chapter of The Reenchantment of the World and recommended in Coming to Our Senses (though as Prof. Berman protested, without discarding the intellect). The upbeat descriptions contained there are an apparent obligation of cultural critics — the sugar-coated cures for our ailments. What we actually have instead is characterized by loss. Reason won’t be merely dormant, it will be forgotten. We are very likely in the midst of a paradigm shift, a restyling of human consciousness. In the process, we have jettisoned the ideals of the Enlightenment and failed to truly answer or even address the central question of the humanities: “What is the meaning of human life?” That failure may be out of laziness or misdirection, but probably not. Rather, it’s in our nature, perhaps best put by John Gray in Straw Dogs (in a quote I’ve used in the past and with which Prof. Berman disagrees):

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction … Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs — even if the result is ruin. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings. These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mold. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.

Driving Cars (less)

Posted: March 22, 2008 in Consumerism, Economics

I pulled together my papers for my tax return this week. The most surprising detail was that I drove my car just over 4,000 miles last year. Since I bought my current vehicle 4.5 years ago, I have added just under 30,000 miles, an average of about 6,670 per year. This low mileage is something of which I’m rather proud, and it’s only possible because I live in a city with good enough public transportation to forgo the car many days, especially the commute to and from work. If fact, if it weren’t for needing the car to get to musical engagements, I would consider selling the car and going without.

This reminded me of an article I saw comparing the fuel efficiency of a BMW diesel to a Toyota Prius hybrid. While the Prius has earned all the accolades for being the green, energy-conscious choice of the environmental set, the BMW, with its greater weight, power, and luxury status, actually won in a heads up competition. It may be that the Prius is designed to excel especially in stop-and-go city driving rather than the long-distance driving that was the basis for the comparison, but it’s still a surprising result.

The way the article is presented, though, reinforces the fact that most Americans are not really all that interested in energy conservation except as a byproduct of greater fuel efficiency. It’s still our implicit birthright to drive cars whenever, wherever, and at whatever cost we desire so long as we’re able to afford the fuel and the vehicle itself. The roadways are of course the responsibility of our government, meaning that they’re socialized (gasp!). The mainstream media rarely suggests that perhaps conservation might mean not driving everywhere, even or especially when it’s more convenient. (It’s rarely more efficient or less costly to drive a car except in terms of time. That calculus must include all the factors of driving, not just the fuel cost.) And there’s little urgency or sense in the public mind that driving habits may have broad implications beyond our personal economies.

Like everyone else, I haven’t yet given up the convenience of driving. A grocery store run (scarcely a mile from home) would be a very different endeavor on a bike were transporting milk, eggs, canned goods, meat, etc. It would often require several trips and a lot more time and be really unpleasant in the rain and/or cold. Similarly, the car extends my range so that I can shop at a greater variety of stores farther distant than the one grocery nearby. But I’ve still limited my driving considerably, and I have a guilt pang every time I drive, wondering if maybe I couldn’t make the trip some other way.

Of my circle of friends and acquaintances, only one has limited his driving because of an inability to afford the increased price of gas. Several don’t own cars (again, a real possibility in Chicago). The suburbanites who commute from the burbs to downtown Chicago are fully dependent on their cars. Most of us will continue to pay for fuel and drive at will until … well … until we can’t anymore. What then? Considering how firmly lodged driving has become in our daily habits, our social organization, and our nearly complete dependence on regular supply of cheap energy, some forward-looking individuals prophesy that Americans will go positively apeshit when fuel scarcity occurs. Peak oil projections indicate that such scarcity may not be far off, at which point the suburbs and exurbs will become the new slums, unreachable by most newly carless or fuelless people. For now, however, it’s still happy motoring. Enjoy it while you can.

Harried Life

Posted: March 10, 2008 in Culture, Economics

My employer sponsored an in-service luncheon recently on the topic Achieving Balance. The presentation was essentially a PowerPoint presentation conducted by a representative of a professional human resources company (which will remain nameless since I’m about to criticize the presentation harshly). The presenter promised an interactive, fun, lunch meeting. The part that was true was lunch. If the presenter had any public speaking experience or credentials on the subject being presented, they weren’t evident. In fact, just about any classroom teacher knows that the surest way to lose the interest of students is to read from an outline given as a handout. That’s no less true of adults, and compounding the issue by having lunch led to a particularly uninspired presentation. The interactive part consisted of querying attendees and mostly ignoring the responses when no clear segue to the next point was offered, which was most of the time. Nobody there would have called any part of it fun unless they sat in the back and made sarcastic comments.

But that’s merely form. The content is what really irked me. The balance to be sought is between the demands of professional life, family life, and what is commonly understood as “having a life.” Everyone registered recognition that we’re all pulled 100 directions in the course of a day, leaving precious little time for quiet contemplation or enjoyment. The tips and suggestions included things such as taking a self-inventory; prioritizing time and goals; discarding unused things, unrealistic expectations, and toxic relationships; adopting a healthy lifestyle; and keeping an activity log and to-do list. All well and good, but these are all elements warmed over from just about any self-help book or time-management pamphlet. And worse, they were all ultimately aimed at recovering lost time and improving efficiency so that one could accomplish more. And that, as they say, is the root of the problem: more. We want more, and more … and more. Yet there isn’t enough time in the world to watch all the TV and movies, listen to all the music, read all the books and magazines (and blogs), eat at all the restaurants, have all the personal relationships (and sex), do the exercise, get the sleep, and still hold a full-time job to afford it all. Plus, with all the new media and experiences being added to the to-do list every day, some with the best intentions of actually do them, most of us just keep piling on without every really diminishing the pile.

What little discussion there was in the seminar, considering how poorly the presenter guided participants, all took for granted the notion that the only solution was more — more desires and more accomplishments, even if only something as mundane as organizing a closet. Ugh! I kept my lip buttoned, lest I be regarded as disruptive and confrontational, but I really wanted to examine this assumption. My initial question would have been in two parts: “What do you think about the time most Americans waste watching TV and what would you recommend regarding insulating oneself from the influence of manufactured desire?” The first part might have gone over okay, but the second would doubtlessly have opened a Pandora’s Box for those able to see even the initial implications. Other questions I might have entertained if I thought the presenter had the first clue how to answer them professionally would have included how to be satisfied with what we have; how to say no to others (and ourselves) piling on expectations; how to avoid feeling stressed at being idle; how to be comfortable in quiet, stillness, and solitude; and how to adopt an other-directed orientation as an antidote to narcissistic self-absorption. (I had others I can’t remember anymore. But I’m not stressed about it.)

On the heels of the presentation, which I was mulling for a few days, I came across two related blog posts (here and here). Both resonate in the direction opposite that of the presentation, namely, do and expect less and be happier for it. What a refreshing and serendipitous reminder. As a personal example, I update this blog on average once per week. The interval varies, but unlike many bloggers who report feeling stressed to keep up with new posts to drive or maintain traffic, I write when I’m ready. I notice that hits double for a day or two after each post (and fall off on weekends invariably), but I’m content with the intervals between posts and the diminished traffic. I’m doing other things that matter to me more.

Nanny State

Posted: March 8, 2008 in Culture

Great Britain takes a lot of heat at for being a nanny state: a country that goes to unwarranted and sometimes intrusive lengths to care for its citizens. Most policies and laws are charmingly eccentric, but a few step over the line of infringing upon individual liberties (which don’t always coincide with American liberties). In the former category is a trial program of padding lightposts to keep people from injuring themselves by walking into a post while texting.

Something about this strikes me as very funny, and this is a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. The so-called CrackBerry phenomenon is just sad, and I suppose constant IMing (instant messaging) is no better, so I feel no empathy for folks who can’t tear themselves away from their tiny screens. Add the element of walking into shit and injuring yourself and, well, that’s just plain funny. It’s more tragic, of course, when it’s the combination of texting and driving, or texting and railroad crossings. Human devolution has clearly begun when we’re so jacked in people can’t even handle walking down the street.

Randall Denley as a curious opinion column in The Ottawa Citizen called “The Death of Mass Culture.” Denley’s complaints are two-fold: (1) we no longer have a shared, common culture to which we all subscribe, and (2) the quality of the common culture to which we used to pay attention is no longer producing much of value. Let me consider his second point first. Denley writes,

The music industry has become obsessed with people stealing their products electronically, but the real problem is a lack of compelling talent. We lack major figures such as Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Each redefined pop music and drew vast audiences that crossed generations. Literally no one is doing that now. Few new singers today even have a hope of cracking music’s second tier.

I have no argument with what he’s feels is a lackluster music scene compared to giants of the past (handpicked with the considerable advantage of hindsight). Other mass culture offerings arguably suffer the same diminished worthiness. Why might that be? I have two ideas.

There is a demographic effect at work here not unlike what propels so many Kenyans into the top tier of long-distance runners. As described by Alberto Salazar in a Sports Illustrated article by Alexander Wolff:

[I]ronic circumstances … seem to cast the U.S. as a Third World country in distance running: “As big as we are, we have fewer people to draw on. In Kenya there are probably a million schoolboys 10 to 17 years old who run 10 to 12 miles a day. That’s how they get to and from school. The average Kenyan 18-year-old has run 15,000 to 18,000 more miles in his life than the average American — and a lot of that’s at altitude. They’re motivated because running is a way out. Plus they don’t have a lot of other sports for kids to be drawn into. Numbers are what this is all about. In Kenya there are maybe 100 runners who have hit 2:11 in the marathon — and in the U.S., maybe five.” [emphasis added]

Can we honestly say we have nearly equivalent numbers working diligently at music compared to, say, 1965? Most kids these days expect immediate gratification and don’t have the patience or long-term vision to spend the countless hours necessary to hone a craft. They would rather learn how to play rock music (sorta) from a video game. That was less true of kids in the past, and so from a demographics perspective, far fewer adults develop even modest musical skills such as being able to read music or play the piano at any level.

The other idea is that entertainment media are a gluttonous smorgasbord compared to 40 years ago. Then, there was no Internet, no video games, only three TV channels, far fewer professional sports (and sports teams), and movies stayed in theaters for months rather than weeks (if they’re profitable). Indeed, we have so much mass media competing for our attention that we’re inevitably ignorant of most of it. Who knew, for example, that there is now a sport for stacking cups? Stacking cups!! If in the past we could attend to, say, 8 of 10 categories in mass culture, that might be considered fairly comprehensive. Now, even if we knew even slightly about 50 of 100+ things, we are hopelessly uninformed to be able to capture the Zeitgeist or cultural moment except accidentally. We’re full-time consumers, which leaves little opportunity for thoughtful, reflective creation.

Denley identifies the problem of fragmentation himself:

In television, the wide proliferation of channels has turned broadcasting into narrowcasting. With so much choice, the market is fragmented. That doesn’t mean the shows are all bad, but they all face such competition that few garner numerically significant audiences.

Which brings me to his first complaint mentioned above. We simply can’t keep up with the volume of TV shows, music, best seller lists, blogs, movies, and everything vomited up by the Information Age. Hardly anything gets a wide audience anymore, even with our teeming numbers. So I’m lucky if I can talk to someone about my favorite show, band, books, etc. because it’s unlikely they know anything about my preferred entertainments. Further, the limited number of creative jobs could be offered to only the most creative and imaginative artists and practitioners. Today, with so much space to fill, competence no longer clusters around a few media outlets.

The notion of cultural literacy was first popularized by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. in his book of the same name in 1988. Since exclusions always inspire heated debate, it’s obviously a mistake (though seductive) to assert specific cultural knowledge we should all share, and Hirsch has ironically fragmented his own focus by creating a diverse cottage industry of “things you need to know” by certain age milestones. Now that the information environment is blown wide open, it’s even more difficult to establish any canonical culture. For example, I was recently dismayed to learn that a 15-year-old music student of my acquaintance had never heard of Brahms or the three B’s (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms). It’s apparently no longer taught even to those studying music. (Don’t even get me started about the number of people — not just kids — who think the sun revolves around the earth.)

As much as I might want to agree with Denley about the death of mass culture and bemoan the loss of conversational common ground, I think his report of such demise is premature and greatly exaggerated. It’s not that we no longer have a mass culture, it’s merely that those cultural mainstays of 1965 or even 1985 have receded to the background and become minority players in niche markets. We still have a common culture, but it’s no longer what it was, and it won’t stay what it is for much longer, either. TV is still probably the most democratic medium, but its fragmentation into a dizzying array from which to choose simply means that each show attracts its own increasingly narrow slice rather than a large pie piece.

More importantly, the mass culture and conversation we share is characterized less by our entertainment choices than by our values. We value connectedness but are constantly at our electronics chattering away, and many of us can’t hold a meaningful conversation. We value security but are willing to cede our privacy to obtain a semblance of security. We value affluence and are drawn to paths that produce the most perceived bang for the buck (business degrees and lotteries). We value beauty and heap unwarranted praise on the genetically fortunate while paying obscene sums to transform ourselves into their image. We value family and insist on its sanctity even while we erode the very sense of community that fosters belonging. Most of all, we value the self-deception of righteous American virtue that allows us to turn a blind eye to the awful machinations of American corporations and government. That’s the mass culture that’s still thriving in America.