Archive for October, 2015

I indicated before that I would not blog about Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head because his content is too close to things I already blog about plenty. However, I would like to bring one thing — one thing! — out of his book:

It is fashionable to scoff at the idea of a “privileged” moment in culture (for example, the Baroque era for organs, or the decades before the 1990s for automobiles) that is better than any other moment. Let it be conceded that the orchestral organs of the early twentieth century must have swelled the worshipers of that time with an aesthetic-religious experience no less real than that of their Baroque predecessors. To speak of decadence, then, smacks of nostalgia, that thought crime that popular writers are quick to detect in anyone who glances backward.

Yet our low regard for nostalgia often seems not to rest on some substantive standard of excellence, in light of which a preference for the past is seen as missing the mark, but rather expresses idolatry of the present. This kind of “forward-thinking” is at bottom an apologetic species of conservatism, as it defers to and celebrates whatever is currently ascendant. [p. 222]

Crawford’s remarks here are an aside, not really part of his main arguments. Yet he describes well our knee-jerk disdain for tradition and the past, which I previously blogged about here. This particular idea is of significance to me not for its musical associations, though his example of Baroque vs. 20th-century organs offers an obvious musical connection (about which Crawford discusses only craftwork, his pet project, skipping past purely musical and aesthetic considerations). Rather, Crawford is right that the nostalgic frame is regarded as no less than thought crime, especially by technophiles easily impressed with gadgetry. Accordingly, the accusation of being a Luddite or not “with it” resounds in the ears of anyone without the latest electronic accouterments. Crawford puts the lie to that notion fairly handily in the course of the book. I find it curious, too, that he turns the word conservatism on its head.

Since the time of my initial post, however, the dilemma of ceaseless, destabilizing flux has taken on new dimension (at least from my vantage point). Whereas the argument used to be mostly about those who felt they were being left behind by a culture always on the move (yet surprisingly not so when one looks deeper), it has now also become about individuals losing themselves to ideation. Crawford’s subtitle speaks to this directly: on becoming an individual in an age of distraction. From time to time, I point to The Compulsive Explainer (see blogroll), who also circles around the idea of people now being nothing, nonentities, absorbed in and by their machines, especially the computer. To go just a little further, this is what it also means to observe that the U.S. has progressed out of agrarian, manufacturing, and service economies into an information economy. Progress is the wrong word, of course, but it encapsulates what I have been saying for some time now, namely, that we’re living in our heads, in a world of our own imaginations rather than in the real world of things.

A listicle for your (more likely my) amusement:

  • All cats are girls, all dogs are boys. Everyone knows this from childhood. Additional discussion is moot.
  • Money is virtue. Those who earn (or inherit) the most money are the most virtuous and obviously get to make all the important decisions.
  • Sexual intercourse occurs late at night, lights out, in bed under the covers, man on top. The result is either disease or pregnancy, sometimes both.
  • Everything of value below ground and underwater is there for us to dig up and harvest to burn, smelt, eat, or exploit at will. It’s all within our domain with no boundaries whatsoever.
  • Jesus loves you. And when you die, you will go to heaven as reward … for … um … what, exactly?
  • Pointy-headed, ivory-tower, nerd academics and scientists have nothing to tell us about the world that we can’t figure out using our own minds. Interior, passionately felt “understanding” has far greater authority than expertise.
  • Alternatively, what the media, government, clergy, teachers, parents, and friends tell you are the important things needing knowing, especially if they come loaded with salacious, scandalous, envious, fear- and guilt-mongering content. What you don’t know can’t hurt you.
  • Rights are best articulated through an incoherent mashup of nationality, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and more. None, however, compares to the right of the consumer to buy, have, and enjoy any damn thing he or she pleases. Consequences do not exist.

No Nudes Needed

Posted: October 15, 2015 in Culture, Economics, Idle Nonsense, Media

I’m a few days late, having only learned of it today, but can’t help but to take note of Playboy‘s new policy regarding nudes in its flagship publication:

As part of a redesign that will be unveiled next March, the print edition of Playboy will still feature women in provocative poses. But they will no longer be fully nude.

Its executives admit that Playboy has been overtaken by the changes it pioneered. “That battle has been fought and won,” said Scott Flanders, the company’s chief executive. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

The irony of this development is rich, though I have no Schadenfreude about it. The arguments in the linked article are undeniably true, a quintessential example of the democratization of production having brought the power, if not the cachet, of publication within the reach of anyone with a functioning Internet connection. Thus, the business model that made print publication profitable in the first place is largely gone now.

Considering Playboy‘s significant brand, I can’t help but wonder what’s to become of the venerable Playmate of the Month. Will Playboy‘s online division continue to crown new weekly, monthly, yearly winners of the genetic sweepstakes — albeit often aided by bosom-stuffing plastic surgeons? If that hallowed beauty award is no longer conferred, it’s doubtful any upstart will be able to establish itself as a replacement. Oh, how the times be a-changin’.

As wants go, many are conventional and seemingly innocuous, at least on an individual level. If within reach, most of us will pull in what we want without much compunction regarding costs and effects downstream. Short-term satisfaction overrides forward planning. The most ubiquitous example may be sugar, which provides an immediate boost to brain chemistry, not dissimilar from that of cocaine, but is not a large part of the diet to which our Neolithic biology is evolved. Yet sugar is a large part of the typical American diet for a number of reasons beyond mere palatability. Indeed, food manufacturers have refined their recipes to create irresistible appeal by loading processed foods with fat, sugar, and salt. (As the saying goes, can’t eat just one!) Portion sizes don’t help: the typical tub of popcorn and 32 oz drink that for many accompany a typical movie showing (viewers squirming in their seats desperate to escape to the restrooms as soon as the credits roll) are a complete overload of all three. Little wonder that an obesity epidemic in the U.S. exists, along with diabetes appearing earlier and more regularly in the population.

Another typical indulgence is the automobile, indispensable in most American households as a frankly irreplaceable means of transport. We’re forced into our cars by virtue of the dearth of alternatives, but we want them anyway because of their obvious utility and the freedom they represent — a highly successful part of the marketing. No one tells you at the time of purchase, first vehicle or any thereafter, that you have also signed on to clog the atmosphere and streets alongside all the other drivers. Those who complain about the traffic are often oblivious to the fact that they are the traffic. Just be glad not to be part of this crazy 50-lane traffic jam in China:

Everything is bigger in Texas? I’d say China’s got the Lone Star state beat on this score.

Perhaps the most egregious example is arms, to use the term from the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Although the 2nd Amendment is over 200 years old and conceived for a society quite different from the one we now have (well-regulated militias being notably absent from today’s society), the recognized right may have outlived its usefulness now that citizens are increasingly at risk of violence at each other’s hand in the home, workplace, church, and school. Maybe the shooter is an aggrieved postal worker (see the original provocation for the term going postal), a downsized factory worker, an abused spouse, a jilted boy- or girlfriend, a religious or political zealot, a social misfit, or an honest-to-goodness terrorist (a few exist, though the actual numbers are IMO grossly exaggerated to keep everyone on edge and to justify our ridiculously out-of-proportion security apparatus), easy availability of the gun amplifies the force an individual can bring to bear on his or her targets.

In the wake of yet another school shooting — yes, senseless and deplorable like so many others, both past and future (there’s bound to be more) — beyond the condemnation of the shooter and by-the-numbers characterization of the “lone, crazed gunman” no one could see coming, wouldn’t it be interesting to describe wanting a gun in the first place as having the collateral effect that others, too, would have guns and that a background level of (increasing?) violence and mayhem would simply have to be considered part of the package, part of the right as equally applied? The consequence of too much sugar is getting fat and/or being unhealthy. Lots of people have already made that deal. The consequence of driving an automobile is contributing to pollution and congestion. Few of us have realistic alternatives given how society is structured. The consequence of gun ownership is that people will have to die, not by one’s own hand necessarily, but as an inevitable part of the right of gun ownership made available to most anyone who wants one. This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons for law-abiding citizens to want guns. I acknowledge that fully. But illegitimate uses are stowed away in the baggage hold.

No politician will describe the current state of American society as violent and arbitrary, where one’s fellow citizens could snap at any moment and rampage through one’s own workplace or neighborhood. Frankly, I’m surprised that Wild West shootouts depicted in cops-and-robbers movies have not yet become commonplace. Rather, the lone shooter in most scenarios tends to proceed unhindered until the event is played to its conclusion, typically with the shooter taking his or her own life. Blaze of glory, etc. Will we reach a point at which everyday violence becomes so intolerable that American citizens will relinquish their right to bear arms in the hopes of gaining peace and tranquility? No, I’m pretty confident that we will instead go out in a blaze of glory — cold, dead hands and all that.

I’ve been puzzling for some time over my increasingly visceral aversion to folks face-planted in their phones and tablets. It’s not merely their often being stumblebums clogging hallways, corridors, sidewalks, and elevators with rank inattention to traffic flows, though that public nuisance has been jangling my nerves to a startling degree. The answer, I was surprised to discover when I began reading Matthew Crawford’s highly regarded book The World Beyond Your Head, is my sense that those staring unwaveringly at their screens are in effect denying sociability in the most ordinary of ways by failing to acknowledge my presence with a nod or even eye contact. This is most surprising to me because I used to eschew common social graces (a couple decades ago) but have revised my thinking through recognition that, as social creatures, we take cues from each other ranging from inconsequential to life and death. None should be discarded. Even though I don’t expect soul-felt validation of my very person in day-to-day interactions, the notable absence of any acknowledgement whatsoever feels less passively neutral, more aggressively hostile. Indeed, I’ve heard stories of people wearing earbuds (without being jacked into anything) precisely to forestall anyone striking up a conversation. I call that protective headgear.

Crawford describes a familiar scene: travelers in an airport gate lounge zoned maniacally into one type of screen or another, some handheld, others mounted overhead, but in either case oblivious to each other in what might have been a social milieu in the day before electronic gadgetry and TVs (e.g., a train depot). Social conduct even in the traditional liquor bar is difficult to maintain when so many screens commandeer one’s attention. Blanket disregard for each other is understandable to Crawford because we now face so many arbitrary demands on our attention (e.g., advertising everywhere, now even on the trays the TSA uses at security checkpoints) that the response is often to cocoon oneself away from the world. Thus, according to Crawford, “we engage less than we once did in everyday activities that structure our attention.” His antidote to living in our heads, transfixed by representations of reality (as opposed to actuality), is to develop skilled practices that focus and refine attention. This is his subject in his previous book Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I have not read. Thus, to be more authentically human, or to be “a powerful, independent mind working at full song,” is to be situated within “narrow and highly structured patterns of attention” that require bodily engagement and submission to constraints that remove the faux freedom of choice.

Here I must pause to register my dismay that Crawford fails to acknowledge Albert Borgmann and his description of focal practices. Many philosophers and their ideas are cited in the book so far (I’m up to p. 95), but to omit Borgmann is an egregious error someone should have caught. I also find it astonishing that Crawford quite clearly speaks my language and makes many of the same points I have been making here at The Spiral Staircase, though with far greater detail and thoroughness as book form requires. However, the language is often clunky and reads too much like a psychology text (which is why I stopped reading books by Robert Putnam — and Albert Borgmann — partway through). I will read to the end of The World Beyond Your Head, but I won’t turn it into a book blogging project since it’s so close to the things I already write about.

So what’s one to do in the presence of others who are steadfastly disengaged from everyone else? I recall last month stepping onto an elevator with maybe five others on the way home from work where no one had yet face-planted into a phone. We all looked at each other briefly, relaxed, not in that awkward elevator way, when inevitably one fellow dove into his pocket a produced a phone. I blurted out without exercising my usual self-editing restraint, “So you’re the one who just had to whip out his pacifier.” Luckily, it came across as a joke and everyone laughed, but I think my intent was really sanction. I resist the pull of electronics as much as I can (I have a cell phone but no data line), but I recognize that though I may be swimming upstream, I cannot redirect the flow of everyone’s attention inexorably into personal screens. Storms along the eastern seaboard last week knocked out power for many for a few hours. No doubt some (re)discovered what it means to be with their families (or alone with their thoughts) without electronic mediation. Do they look dumbly at each other and say “What now?” (as was reported to me) or be sociable?

I picked up and read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run (2009), which achieved immense popularity after publication but only came into view for me quite recently. I can’t help but to project onto the book or draw from it considerable resonance with themes I have been developing on this blog over the years. By my reading, the book is fundamentally about resolving the mind-body disconnect commonplace in modern, post-industrial society. (The author may not see it that way at all.) The point of entry is the conflict between what our bodies are evolved to do — running long distances in persistent hunts (which I blogged about here) — and what modern medicine insists is highly destructive to the body if not impossible, namely, ultrarunning. However, running is merely the context in which the larger goal to reconnect mind-body occurs. One might even say that the mechanics of our bodies make running something elemental, undeniable, so a natural bridge. Though we (post-)moderns have often lost touch with the sense of our bodies as our selves, locating identity instead in the brain/mind, runners sometimes regain that connection, albeit temporarily, and in the case of the Tarahumara people from the Copper Canyons of Mexico, a people characterized by their running ability, they may never have lost the connection.

If you don’t recognize the notion of mind-body duality, you’re hardly alone. My contention for some years now is that we live too much in our heads and mental noise is increasingly drowning out what the body supplies in day-to-day life with respect to self-knowledge, contentment, and serenity. Think of the Zen of the cat. There may be spiritual aspect, too, but that lies beyond my sensibilities and does not seem to be within the scope of the book, either. Sensitive folks, or sometimes those who have simply been left behind by the incessant struggle of getting and having, may reach toward an unknown horizon in search of something otherwise fulfilling; running is a natural candidate. McDougall tells what amounts to an underground history of the second and third incarnations of U.S. running crazes, not unlike cyclical religious and political awakenings and reawakenings. One can argue whether such fads are part of our deep culture (if often feels that way), responsive to social turmoil, or merely more surface noise. There is nothing conspiratorial about it, but McDougall revels in the lost secrets and unheeded goings-on that constitute the subculture of ultrarunning. Runners’ athletic prowess is hard not to admire, but their compulsive pursuit often feels more than a little unhinged, not at all Zen.

The author employs a whole bag of writerly tricks to engage the reader, as though he distrusts his own subject matter and must resort to storytelling clichés to keep readers teased and entrained. Irritatingly, he starts one story but smash cuts to other tangential stories repeatedly within the larger structure. The stories all tie together, but the thread is interrupted so often that I felt my chain being yanked, which ejected me from the flow to contemplate the seams and joints within the narrative. That style probably works for dull readers, much like the TV news constantly strings viewers from segment to segment with rapid-fire disorientation and discontinuity mixed with flashes of what news is about to be reported, but first … this (typically, a word from sponsors). The best aspect of McDougall’s many diversions from the main story arc are what amount to detective stories behind body mechanics, running shoe design, persistence hunting, etc. Although they suggest we have arrived at a final understanding of such topics, handily turning conventional wisdom on its head in most cases, I rather suspect that further refinements are inevitable, especially if the real story is mind-body rather than running.

Most of the people profiled in the book suffer from mild to severe character distortion (by modern, post-industrial standards). Perhaps it’s exactly those who abandon or rebel against the dominant paradigm who are redeemed by what they (re)discover beyond. More than a couple of them are just assholes, though. Having done a little additional Internet research on some of the characters, it’s difficult to decide whether ultrarunning is indeed for them redemption or merely the fruitless chasing of lost souls. The unifying character (besides the author), Caballo Blanco or Micah True, died while running wilderness trails, though his autopsy revealed he died from heart disease. Others achieved of a mixture of notoriety and infamy both before and after the publication of the book. McDougall appears to have become a running guru and inspirational speaker, with numerous YouTube videos promoting his books and findings.

In summary, I’m glad to have read the book. Its potboiler style aside, the book has fascinating content and fairly good storytelling. The denouement felt a little incomplete, but then, many detours from the main story were left hanging, so finishing with a 50-mile race in the Copper Canyons may be as good a finale as anything. Being a (lousy) endurance athlete myself, I was encouraged to learn that there is still some opportunity for me to improve my athletic ability. According to the book, the human body doesn’t have to slow down appreciably until the middle 60s. So I’m encouraged that, unlike the steep drop-off in participation in the late fifties typical of endurance athletes, I can keep going a while longer. However, I am seeking elsewhere for mind-body connection.