Archive for January, 2013

I don’t watch TV, but I sometimes see DVDs of something made for and initially broadcast on TV. A PBS series called This Emotional Life caught my eye at the library, so I decided to check it out. Based on the title, I expected (and hoped) to learn something about the cognitive basis of emotions. What I saw instead was a heuristic about happiness.

The three-part series is hosted by Daniel Gilbert, who authored the best-selling Stumbling on Happiness and is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. (The PBS series is perhaps just a longer version of his TED Talk.) His taxonomy of things that do and don’t make us happy, despite what we may believe and the shallowness of our aspirations, comes as no surprise. It’s been clear to me for some time that our media environment distracts people almost totally from what makes a person truly happy, and very few Westerners know anymore how to live meaningfully. The two main distractions are wealth and fame/esteem, neither of which are especially good indicators of happiness. A third, having children, is surprisingly neutral. Again and again throughout the series, Dr. Gilbert turns to scientists who insist that truth is ascertained through measurement and that various indices of happiness are better guides to understanding than actual experience and/or conventional wisdom. In a certain respect, this is true: we have lost touch with and are estranged from both our bodies and our emotions (those being inextricably linked) and so easily deceive ourselves with pursuit of the wrong goals. But measurement and the scientific method are also subtle deceptions, primarily the domain of experts and beyond the ken of the lay public.

I’ve complained before about psychometrics. No doubt such an approach, using mounds of data, does permit some interesting observations not otherwise available. For instance, Dr. Gilbert reports on findings that came out a gigantic data set from the Framingham Heart Study, namely, that happiness (and presumably other emotions) operates like an infectious disease and makes emotional life into a shared cognitive network extending three to four degrees of separation. Only big data allows us to measure this kind of effect, but my seat-of-the-pants intuition is that no one with any experience in a meatworld social network, such as a nuclear or extended family, needs science to tell us that others’ emotions impact our own. The nursery and classroom function this way, as do cliques, gangs, and other membership organizations. Indeed, poets, artists, and philosophers have long known that no man is an island and that the betweenness of things, their intersubjectivity (to use Husserl’s term), is where the action is. Science may now be demonstrating this intuition numerically, but I’m irritated that eggheads insist their measurements finally allow us to know what’s really truly true as though no poet ever expressed it before or better.

Curiously, this article in The Atlantic argues that the pursuit of happiness is not itself sufficient to provide meaning, the search for meaning in life being one of the great philosophical conundrums long before happiness as an objective emerged to replace it. (We can probably lay some blame on Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase.) Yet a larger, unacknowledged postmodern project to demythologize the present, and for that matter, the past, renders its human subjects as kinetic and inert, mere objects of study. Similar misguided approaches, using measurement in the pursuit of truth that is already obvious and thus needs no rigorous explanation, include an article in Discover called “The Math Behind Beauty” and the entire field of aesthetics (sometimes called hermeneutics when applied specifically to textual interpretation). Further corollaries include monetization of everything (as when a famous painting is described to schoolchildren not in terms of its beauty or context within an artistic genre but by how much money it’s reputed to be worth) and the reduction to financial and polling terms the entirety of our social and political realms.


A Pitiable Inheritance

Posted: January 5, 2013 in Culture, Ethics

Lots of ways exist for ego and self-regard to misfire. One quintessential way to lose one’s bearings is to be suddenly successful and/or celebrated and then begin believing the hype generated by the media and fans. Another is to pass others up as one’s powers and wherewithal grow in scope, such as when a younger sibling is propelled past an older one or when children accept responsibility for their parents as age wears down the elder generation. As a society, America’s ascendance during World War II and afterwards to superpower status went to its head after years of harboring an inferiority complex about its lack of sophistication relative to older, established cultures of Western Europe from whence many Americans came. (As a mostly immigrant society, we hardly bothered to consider our Asian and African roots.) The trajectory is familiar, as embodied in exhortations such as “don’t forget the little people” (once you become a big man) or “don’t step on others on the way up” (because you’ll meet them again on the way down). It may be one of the hardest things to resist: letting success go to one’s head and believing one is “all that.”

But what of those whose inheritance (wealth, position) paves the way to the top, who never had to work for it (or work as hard) because of parents or older siblings? Phrases that illustrate this dynamic include being “born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth” or being “to the manor born.” The prerogatives enjoyed by those whose family circumstances enable them are really quite different from those whose families seem intent on keeping them down, as in “don’t even think you will ever be any better than us,” which forestalls striving pretty handily. There is a large middle ground between those two extremes, of course, that most of us experience, where the normal flow of life is characterized by neither leapfrog success nor suppression and failure. We fumble and stumble our way through the labyrinth on our own steam and merits, sometimes with modest successes but nearly always with setbacks.

But isn’t it a rather pitiable inheritance to never face those challenges? Only two months past the presidential election, one such person “to the manor born,” Mitt Romney, has dropped outta sight faster than even George W. Bush after leaving office. (Like Bush, Romney may be a prime example of failing upwards.) I recall reading plenty about Romney and his inherited wealth and position, one of the best descriptions being that he was born sliding into home but thought he had hit a home run. That perspective accounted for his apparently unshakeable confidence that he would be the victor in the election — something preordained — as well as his dumbfounded incredulity at having lost. His alienation from reality aligns perfectly with others whose success and position allow them to utter phrases akin to “let them eat cake,” such as fellow Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who said, “if you’re poor, it’s your own fault!” (He might also have been overheard to say, “let them eat pizza.”) The media landscape (a true distortion lens, that) is full of folks who have completely lost touch (if they were ever in touch in the first place) with their fellow man and who have become part of what I’ve heard called the “tribute kleptocracy,” a narrowing set of one-percenters characterized by their insatiable, gluttonous grab for the spoils but who can never be happy or whole with their miserly hoards. Indeed, we’re not even through with the inauguration and I’ve already heard it’s settled that the next presidential candidates, riding the coattails of previous presidents, will be Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Perhaps there is a quiet voice whispering to them that, at their core, they are undeserving. I dunno, but I rather pity someone whose ambitions never allow them to feel even modest satisfactions.

Updates to Blogroll 02

Posted: January 2, 2013 in Blogosphere, Blogroll

Lots of things happen right around the start of a new year, what with resolutions, tax-year lines of demarcation, and calendrical switches. My blogroll has taken a big hit, with the end of either additional posts or my own participation in the commentary. Blogs come and go, and focuses change, so that’s no big deal. But my blogroll is curated, not just a link exchange, and if I can’t recommend a site anymore, well, away it goes.

The first disappeared earlier this fall when the blog when into hibernation: I Blame the Patriarchy. The author has had a couple updates since, as events drew her back to point the bony finger of blame yet again. She is one of the best writers I read, but I guess I don’t really want to read humorous anecdotes at her new blog, Dreadful Acres.

The second was never on my blogroll, as its setup discouraged discussion in favor of broadcasting: the eponymous Ran Prieur. He just announced semi-retirement from his blog. One of the best curators of content out there, he says he will continue to post and point to others’ content but doesn’t want to address via follow-up and revision feedback that comes his way any longer.

The third is disappointing to me as the author provides valuable content but behaves miserably. Dark Ages America, kept by Morris Berman after his book of the same title, has chronicled the collapse of American empire from a cultural-historical perspective. His books are meticulously researched and documented, and he is interested in the deeper culture behind the periodic noise. However, the blog has become equal parts self-promotion (not just getting his ideas out there but repeated whining that he’s overlooked and under-regarded) and intellectual bullying. His latest gambit is to cast about for fools to insult. He thinks it’s humorous; I don’t. He declined to publish my comment that (in part) called him out as trolling for trolls, which obviously makes him a troll, too. So I’m done there, not that I will be missed, and I can’t recommend Prof. Berman anymore for his blog, though his books are still well worth the time to read and consider.

The fourth, kulturCritic, also frustrates me because the author (Sandy Krolick) and I agree on so much, but he, too, has taken to insulting those who offer comment. He has actively deleted my comments after publication, banished me from further comment (his word was actually excommunicated, but I’ll leave that alone), delivered a swift kick on my way out the door, and even threw it back in my face when I parted ways saying “good luck nevertheless.” Like Prof. Berman, Sandy Krolick produces worthy content but then insulates himself from dissent. Indeed, his focus has shifted away from the cultural analysis I valued most to riffing on news items for his fans, who never fail to pronounce every post “brilliant.” As it happens, my participation in the discussions he hosted had already been waning.

Aside: Thank goodness I remain effectively undiscovered. I want discussion in the comments and would probably appreciate being appreciated, but woe to me if anyone ever started praising my posts as “brilliant” or a coterie of devoted followers otherwise stroked my ego. I would probably be as vulnerable as the next to self-aggrandizement and then adopt the gonzo style (pale, cheap imitations of Joe Bageant, methinks) others have tried in order to drive traffic.

The fifth and last is an addition: Winged Elm Farm. The author, Brian Miller, writes lyrically about the rural pastoral life but does not appear to be nearly as far off the grid or at the fringes as the authors of Leaving Babylon, Nature Bats Last, and perhaps Mythodrome. His commentary at kulturCritic (where I found him) is uniformly good and balanced.

2012 in Review

Posted: January 1, 2013 in Blogosphere, Idle Nonsense

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 11,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 18 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.