Archive for the ‘Literacy’ Category

/rant on

The self-appointed Thought Police continue their rampage through the public sphere, campaigning to disallow certain thoughts and fence off unacceptable, unsanitary, unhygienic, unhealthy utterances lest they spread, infect, and distort their host thinkers. Entire histories are being purged from, well, history, to pretend they either never happened or will never happen again, because (doncha know?) attempting to squeeze disreputable thought out of existence can’t possibly result in those forbidden fruits blossoming elsewhere, in the shadows, in all their overripe color and sweetness. The restrictive impulse — policing free speech and free thought — is as old as it is stupid. For example, it’s found in the use of euphemisms that pretend to mask the true nature of all manner of unpleasantness, such as death, racial and national epithets, unsavory ideologies, etc. However, farting is still farting, and calling it “passing wind” does nothing to reduce its stink. Plus, we all fart, just like we all inevitably traffic in ideas from time to time that are unwholesome. Manners demand some discretion when farting broaching some topics, but the point is that one must learn how to handle such difficulty responsibly rather than attempting to hold it in drive it out of thought entirely, which simply doesn’t work. No one knows automatically how to navigate through these minefields.

Considering that the body and mind possess myriad inhibitory-excitatory mechanisms that push and/or pull (i.e., good/bad, on/off, native/alien), a wizened person might recognize that both directions are needed to achieve balance. For instance, exposure to at least some hardship has the salutary effect of building character, whereas constant indulgence results in spoiled children (later, adults). Similarly, the biceps/triceps operate in tandem and opposition and need each other to function properly. However, most inhibitory-excitatory mechanisms aren’t so nearly binary as our language tends to imply but rather rely on an array of inputs. Sorting them all out is like trying to answer the nature/nurture question. Good luck with that.

Here’s a case in point: student and professional athletes in the U.S. are often prohibited from kneeling in dissent during the playing of the national anthem. The prohibition does nothing to ameliorate the roots of dissent but only suppresses its expression under narrow, temporary circumstances. Muzzling speech (ironically in the form of silent behavior) prior to sports contests may actually boomerang to inflame it. Some athletes knuckle under and accept the deal they’re offered (STFU! or lose your position — note the initialism used to hide the curse word) while others take principled stands (while kneeling, ha!) against others attempting to police thought. Some might argue that the setting demands good manners and restraint, while others argue that, by not stomping around the playing field carrying placards, gesticulating threateningly, or chanting slogans, restraint is being used. Opinions differ, obviously, and so the debate goes on. In a free society, that’s how it works. Societies with too many severe restrictions, often bordering on for going fully into fascism and totalitarianism, are intolerable to many of us fed current-day jingoism regarding democracy, freedom, and self-determination.

Many members of the U.S. Congress, sworn protectors of the U.S. Constitution, fundamentally misunderstand the First Amendment, or at least they conveniently pretend to. (I suspect it’s the former). Here is it for reference:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Defending the First Amendment against infringement requires character and principles. What we have instead, both in Congress and in American society, are ideologues and authorities who want to make some categories flatly unthinkable and subject others to prosecution. Whistleblowing falls into the latter category. They are aided by the gradual erosion of educational achievement and shift away from literacy to orality, which robs language of its richness and polysemy. If words are placed out of bounds, made unutterable (but not unthinkable), the very tools of thought and expression are removed. The thoughts themselves may be driven underground or reduced to incoherence, but that’s not a respectable goal. Only under the harshest conditions (Orwell depicted them) can specific thoughts be made truly unthinkable, which typically impoverishes and/or breaks the mind of the thinker or at least results in pro forma public assent while private dissent gets stuffed down. To balance and combat truly virulent notions, exposure and discussion is needed, not suppression. But because many public figures have swallowed a bizarre combination of incoherent notions and are advocating for them, the mood is shifting away from First Amendment protection. Even absolutists like me are forced to reconsider, as for example with this article. The very openness to consideration of contrary thinking may well be the vulnerability being exploited by crypto-fascists.

Calls to establish a Ministry of Truth have progressed beyond the Silicon Valley tech platforms’ arbitrary and (one presumes) algorithm-driven removal of huge swaths of user-created content to a new bill introduced in the Colorado State Senate to establish a Digital Communications Regulation commission (summary here). Maybe this first step toward hammering out a legislative response to surveillance capitalism will rein in the predatory behaviors of big tech. The cynic in me harbors doubts. Instead, resulting legislation is far more likely to be aimed at users of those platforms.

/rant off

The backblog at The Spiral Staircase includes numerous book reviews and three book-blogging projects — one completed and two others either abandoned or on semi-permanent hiatus. I’m launching a new project on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), which comes highly recommended and appears quite interesting given my preoccupations with language, literacy, and consciousness. To keep my thinking fresh, I have not consulted any online reviews or synopses.

Early on, Ong provides curious (but unsurprising) definitions I suspect will contribute to the book’s main thesis. Here is one from the intro:

It is useful to approach orality and literacy synchronically, by comparing oral cultures and chirographic (i.e., writing) cultures that coexist at a given period of time. But it is absolutely essential to approach them also diachronically or historically, by comparing successive periods with one another. [p. 2]

I don’t recall reading the word chirographic before, but I blogged about the typographic mind (in which Ong’s analyses are discussed) and lamented that the modern world is moving away from literacy, back toward orality, which feels (to me at least) like retrogression and retreat. (Someone is certain to argue return to orality is actually progress.) As a result, Western institutions such as the independent press are decaying. Moreover, it’s probably fair to say that democracy in the West is by now only a remnant fiction, replaced by oligarchic rule and popular subscription to a variety of fantasy narratives easily dispelled by modest inventory of what exists in actuality.

Here is another passage and definition:

A grapholect is a transdialectal language formed by deep commitment to writing. Writing gives a grapholect a power far exceeding that of any purely oral dialect. The grapholect known as standard English has accessible for use a recorded vocabulary of at least a million and a half words, of which not only the present meanings but also hundreds of thousands of past meanings are known. A simply oral dialect will commonly have resources of only a few thousand words, and its users will have virtually no knowledge of the real semantic history of any of these words. [p. 8]

My finding is that terms such as democracy, liberalism, social justice, etc. fail to mean anything (except perhaps to academics and committed readers) precisely because their consensus usage has shifted so wildly over time that common historical points of reference are impossible to establish in a culture heavily dominated by contemporary memes, slang, talking heads, and talking points — components of orality rather than literacy. And as part of a wider epistemological crisis, one can no longer rely on critical thinking to sort out competing truth claims because the modifier critical now bandied about recklessly in academia, now infecting the workplace and politics, has unironically reversed its meaning and requires uncritical doublethink to swallow what’s taught and argued. Let me stress, too, that playing word games (such as dissembling what is means) is a commonplace tactic to put off criticism by distorting word meanings beyond recognition.

Although it’s unclear just yet (to me, obviously) what Ong argues in his book beyond the preliminary comparison and contrast of oral and chirographic cultures (or in terms of the title of the book, orality and literacy), I rather doubt he argues as I do that the modern world has swung around to rejection of literacy and the style of thought that flows from deep engagement with the written word. Frankly, it would surprise me if his did; the book predates the Internet, social media, and what’s now become omnimedia. The last decade in particular has demonstrated that by placing a cheap, personal, 24/7/365 communications device in the hands of every individual from the age of 12 or so, a radical social experiment was launched that no one in particular designed — except that once the outlines of the experiment began to clarify, those most responsible (i.e., social media platforms in particular but also biased journalists and activist academics) have refused to admit that they are major contributors to the derangement of society. Cynics learned long ago to expect that advertisers, PR hacks, and politicians should be discounted, which requires ongoing skepticism and resistance to omnipresent lures, cons, and propaganda. Call it waking up to reality or simply growing up and behaving responsibly in an information environment designed to be disorienting. Accordingly, the existence of counterweights — information networks derived from truth, authority, and integrity — has always been, um, well, critical. Their extinction presages much graver losses as information structures and even the memory of mental habits that society needs to function are simply swept aside.

I’ve been holding in mind for five months now the article at this link (an informal interview with neuroscientist and psychologist Oliver J. Robinson), waiting for conditions when I could return to forms of media consumption I prefer, namely, reading books, magazines, and long-form journalism. When I try to read something substantive these days, I find myself going over the same paragraph repeatedly, waiting in vain for it to register. Regrettably, the calm, composure, and concentration needed for deep reading has been effectively blocked since March 2020 as we wait (also in vain) for the pandemic to burn itself out. (I could argue that the soul-destroying prospect of industrial collapse and near-term human extinction is having the same effect for much longer.) So my attention and media habits have been resignedly diverted to crap news gathering, mostly via video, and cheap entertainments, mostly streaming TV (like everyone else, though others may complain less). The lack of nourishment is noticeable. Considering we’re only weeks away from the U.S. presidential election, stress levels are ratcheting up further, and civil authorities prepare for “election riots” (is that new term?), which I can only assume means piling violence upon violence under the pretense of keeping-the-peace or law-and-order or some other word string rendered meaningless now that the police are widely acknowledged to be a significant contributors to the very problems they are meant to address. These unresolved issues (pandemic, police violence, civil unrest) give rise to pathological anxiety, which explains (according to Robinson, disclaimers notwithstanding) why it’s so hard to read.

To say we live in unprecedented times is both obvious and banal. Unique stresses of modernity have led multiple times to widespread madness and conflict, as well as attempts to recapture things lost in previous shifts from other styles of social organization. Let me not mince words regarding what’s now happening: we’re in an era of repudiation of the Enlightenment, or a renewed Counter-Enlightenment. I’ve stated this before, and I’m not the only one making this diagnosis (just learned it’s a rather old idea — I’m always late to the party). For instance, Martin Jay’s essay “Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment” appears to have been floating around in various forms since 2011. Correlation of this renewal of Counter-Enlightenment fervor with literacy seems clear. Despite basic literacy as a skill being widely improved worldwide over the past two centuries, especially in the developing world, deep literacy is eroding:

Beyond self-inflicted attention deficits, people who cannot deep read – or who do not use and hence lose the deep-reading skills they learned – typically suffer from an attenuated capability to comprehend and use abstract reasoning. In other words, if you can’t, or don’t, slow down sufficiently to focus quality attention – what Wolf calls “cognitive patience” – on a complex problem, you cannot effectively think about it.

Considering deep literacy is absolutely critical to clear thinking (or critical thought, if you prefer, not to be confused with the The Frankfurt School’s critical theory discussed in Jay’s essay), its erosion threatens fundamental institutions (e.g., liberal democracy and the scientific method) that constitute the West’s primary cultural inheritance from the Enlightenment. The reach of destruction wrought by reversing course via the Counter-Enlightenment cannot be overstated. Yet many among us, completely unable to construct coherent ideas, are rallying behind abandonment of Enlightenment traditions. They’re ideologues who actively want to return to the Dark Ages (while keeping modern tech, natch). As with many aspects of unavoidable cultural, social, environmental, and civilizational collapse, I have difficulty knowing quite what to hope for. So I won’t condemn retrograde thinking wholly. In fact, I feel empathy toward calls to return to simpler times, such as with German Romanticism or American Transcendentalism, both examples of cultural and aesthetic movements leading away from the Enlightenment.

Long before these ideas coalesced for me, I had noted (see here, here, and here) how literacy is under siege and a transition back toward a predominantly oral culture is underway. The Counter-Enlightenment is either a cause or an effect, I can’t assess which. At the risk of being a Cassandra, let me suggest that, if these times aren’t completely different from dark episodes of the past, we are now crossing the threshold of a new period of immense difficulty that makes pathological anxiety blocking the ability to read and think a minor concern. Indeed, that has been my basic assessment since crafting the About Brutus blurb way back in 2006. Indicators keep piling up. So far, I have a half dozen points of entry to process and digest by other cultural commentators exploring this theme, though they typically don’t adopt wide enough historical or cultural perspectives. Like the last time I failed to synthesize my ideas into a multipart blog series, I don’t have a snazzy title, and this time, I don’t even have planned installment titles. But I will do my best to roll out in greater detail over several blog posts some of the ways the Counter-Enlightenment is manifesting anew.

Everyone is familiar with the convention in entertainment media where characters speak without the use of recognizable language. (Not related really to the convention of talking animals.) The first instance I can recall (someone correct me if earlier examples are to be found) is the happy-go-lucky bird Woodstock from the old Peanuts cartoons (do kids still recognize that cast of characters?), whose dialog was shown graphically as a series of vertical lines:

When the cartoon made its way onto TV for holiday specials, its creator Charles Schultz used the same convention to depict adults, never shown onscreen but with dialogue voiced by a Harmon-muted trombone. Roughly a decade later, two characters from the Star Wars franchise “spoke” in languages only other Star Wars characters could understand, namely, Chebacca (Chewie) and R2D2. More recently, the character Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy (known to me only through the Marvel movie franchise, not through comic books) speaks only one line of dialogue, “I am Groot,” which is understood as full speech by others Guardians characters. When behemoths larger than a school bus (King Kong, Godzilla, Jurassic dinosaurs, Cloverfield, Kaiju, etc.) appear, the characters are typically denied the power of speech beyond the equivalent of a lion’s roar. (True villains talk little or not at all as they go about their machinations — no monologuing! unless it’s a James Bond film. An exception notable for its failure to charm audiences is Ultron, who wouldn’t STFU. You can decide for yourself which is the worse kind of villainy.)

This convention works well enough for storytelling and has the advantage of allowing the reader/viewer to project onto otherwise blank speech. However, when imported into the real world, especially in politics, the convention founders. There is no Babelfish universal translator inserted in the ear to transform nonsense into coherence. The obvious example of babblespeech is 45, whose speech when off the teleprompter is a series of rambling non sequiturs, free associations, slogans, and sales pitches. Transcripts of anyone’s extemporaneous speech reveal lots of restarts and blind alleys; we all interrupt ourselves to redirect. However, word salad that substitutes for meaningful content in 45’s case is tragicomic: alternately entirely frustrating or comically entertaining depending on one’s objective. Satirical news shows fall into the second category.

45 is certainly not the first. Sarah Palin in her time as a media darling (driver of ratings and butt of jokes — sound familiar?) had a knack for crazy speech combinations that were utter horseshit yet oddly effective for some credulous voters. She was even a hero to some (nearly a heartbeat away from being the very first PILF). We’ve also now been treated to a series of public interrogations where a candidate for a cabinet post or an accused criminal offers testimony before a congressional panel. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos famously evaded simple yes/no questions during her confirmation hearing, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh similarly refused to provide direct answers to direct questions. Unexpectedly, sacrificial lamb Michael Cohen does give direct answers to many questions, but his interlocutors then don’t quite know how to respond considering their experience and expectation that no one answers appropriately.

What all this demonstrates is that there is often a wide gulf between what is said and what is heard. In the absence of what might be understood as effective communication (honest, truthful, and forthright), audiences and voters fill in the blanks. Ironically, we also can’t handle hear too much truth when confronted by its awfulness. None of this is a problem in storytelling, but when found in politic narratives, it’s emblematic of how dysfunctional our communications have become, and with them, the clear thought and principled activity of governance.

Fully a decade ago, I analyzed with more length than I usually allow myself an article from The New Yorker that examined how media trends were pushing away from literacy (the typographic mind) toward listening and viewing (orality) as primary modes of information gathering and entertainment. The trend was already underway with the advent of radio, cinema, and television, which moved the relatively private experience of silent reading to a public or communal realm as people shared experiences around emerging media. The article took particular aim at TV. In the intervening decade, media continue to contrive new paths of distribution, moving activity back to private information environments via the smart phone and earbuds. The rise of the webcast (still called podcast by some, though that’s an anachronism), which may include a video feed or display a static image over discussion and/or lecture, and streaming services are good examples. Neither has fully displaced traditional media just yet, but the ongoing shift in financial models is a definite harbinger of relentless change.

This comes up again because, interestingly, The New Yorker included with an article I popped open on the Web an audio file of the very same article read by someone not the author. The audio was 40 minutes, whereas the article may have taken me 15 to 20 minutes had I read it. For undisclosed reasons, I listened to the audio. Not at all surprisingly, I found it odd and troublesome. Firstly, though the content was nominally investigative journalism (buttressed by commentary), hearing it read to me made it feel like, well, storytime, meaning it was fiction. Secondly, since my eyes weren’t occupied with reading, they sought other things to do and thus fragmented my attention.

No doubt The New Yorker is pandering to folks who would probably not be readers but might well become listeners. In doing so, it’s essentially conceding the fight, admitting that the effort to read is easily eclipsed by the effortlessness of listening. As alternative and unequal modes of transmitting the content of the article, however, it strikes me as an initiative hatched not by writers and editors capable of critical thought and addressing a similarly enabled readership but by a combination of sales and marketing personnel attempting to capture a widening demographic of listeners (read: nonreaders). Navigating to the article might be a modest extra complication, but if a link to the audio file can be tweeted out (I don’t actually know if that’s possible), then I guess the text isn’t truly necessary.

Here part of what I wrote a decade ago:

If the waning of the typographic mind proceeds, I anticipate that the abstract reasoning and critical thinking skills that are the legacy of Enlightenment Man will be lost except to a few initiates who protect the flame. And with so many other threats cropping up before us, the prospect of a roiling mass of all-but-in-name barbarians ruled by a narrow class of oligarchs does indeed spell the total loss of democracy.

Are we getting perilously close that this dystopia? Maybe not, since it appears that many of those in high office and leadership positions labor under their own failures/inabilities to read at all critically and so execute their responsibilities with about the same credibility as hearsay. Even The New Yorker is no longer protecting the flame.

I recall Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story The Celestial Railroad railing against the steam engine, an infernal machine, that disrupts society (agrarian at that time). It’s a metaphor for industrialization. The newest infernal machine (many candidates have appeared since Hawthorne’s time only to be supplanted by the next) is undoubtedly the smart phone. Its disruption of healthy formation of identity among teenagers has already been well researched and documented. Is it ironic that as an object of our own creation, it’s coming after our minds?

I saw something a short while back that tweaked my BS meter into the red: the learning pyramid. According to research done by The NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science in the 1960s (… behaviorists, ugh) and reported here (among other places), there are widely disparate rates of knowledge retention across different passive and active teaching methods:

learning-pyramid-synap-2

Let me state first something quite obvious: learning and retention (memory) aren’t the same things. If one seeks sheer retention of information as a proxy for learning, that’s a gross misunderstanding of both cognition and learning. For example, someone who has managed to memorize, let’s say, baseball statistics going back to the 1950s or Bible verses, may have accomplished an impressive mental task not at all aligned with normal cognitive function (the leaky bucket analogy is accurate), but neither example qualifies someone as learned the way most understand the term. Information (especially raw data) is neither knowledge, understanding, nor wisdom. They’re related, sure, but not the same (blogged about this before here). Increasing levels of organization and possession are required to reach each threshold.

The passive/active (participatory) labels are also misleading. To participate actively, one must have something to contribute, to be in possession of knowledge/skill already. To teach something effectively, one must have greater expertise than one’s students. Undoubtedly, teaching others solidifies one’s understanding and expertise, and further learning is often a byproduct, but one certainly can’t begin learning a new subject area by teaching it. Information (input) needs to come from elsewhere, which understandably has a lower retention rate until it’s been gone over repeatedly and formed the cognitive grooves that represent acquisition and learning. This is also the difference between reception and expression in communications. One’s expressive vocabulary (the words one can actually deploy in speech and writing) is a subset of one’s receptive vocabulary (the words one can understand readily upon hearing or reading). The expressive vocabulary is predicated on prior exposure that imbues less common words with power, specificity, and nuance. While it’s possible to learn new words quickly (in small quantities), it’s not generally possible to skip repetition that enables memorization and learning. Anyone studying vocabulary lists for the SAT/ACT (as opposed to a spelling bee) knows this intuitively.

Lastly, where exactly is most prospective knowledge and skill located, inside the self or outside? One doesn’t simply peel back layers of the self to reveal knowledge. Rather, one goes out into the world and seeks it (or doesn’t, sadly), disturbing it from its natural resting place. The great repositories of knowledge are books and other people (especially those who write books — whoda thunk?). So confronting knowledge, depending on the subject matter, occurs more efficiently one-on-one (an individual reading a book) or in groups (25 or so students in a classroom headed by 1 teacher). The inefficiency of a 1:1 ratio between student and teacher (a/k/a tutoring) is obviously available to those who place a high enough value on learning to hire a tutor. However, that’s not how education (primary through postgraduate) is undertaken in most cases. And just imagine the silliness of gathering a classroom of students to teach just for one person to learn with 90% retention, as the learning pyramid would suggest.

Over at Gin and Tacos, the blogger has an interesting take on perverse incentives that function to inflate grades (and undermine learning), partly by encouraging teachers to give higher grades than deserved at the first hint of pushback from consumers students, parents, or administrators. The blog post is more specifically about Why Johnny Can’t Write and references a churlish article in Salon. All well and good. The blog author provides consistently good analysis as a college professor intimate with the rigors of higher education and the often unprepared students deposited in his classroom. However, this comment got my attention in particular. The commentator is obviously a troll, and I generally don’t feed trolls, so I made only one modest comment in the comments section. Because almost no one reads The Spiral Staircase, certainly no one from the estimable Gin and Tacos crowd, I’ll indulge myself, not the troll, by examining briefly the main contention, which is that quality of writing, including correct grammar, doesn’t matter most of the time.

Here’s most of the comment (no link to the commentator’s blog, sorry):

1. Who gives a flying fuck about where the commas go? About 99.999999999999999% of the time, it makes NO DIFFERENCE WHATSOEVER in terms of understanding somebody’s point if they’ve used a comma splice. Is it a technical error? Sure. Just like my unclear pronoun reference in the last sentence. Did you understand what I meant? Unless you were actively trying not to, yes, you did.

2. There’s are hundreds of well-conducted peer-reviewed studies by those of us who actually specialize in writing pedagogy documenting the pointlessness of teaching grammar skills *unless students give a fuck about what they’re writing.* We’ve known this since the early 1980s. So when the guy from the high school English department in the article says they can’t teach grammar because students think it’s boring, he’s unwittingly almost making the right argument. It’s not that it’s boring–it’s that it’s irrelevant until the students have something they want to say. THEN we can talk about how to say it well.

Point one is that people manage to get their points across adequately without proper punctuation, and point two is that teaching grammar is accordingly a pedagogical dead end. Together, they assert that structure, rules, syntax, and accuracy make no difference so long as communication occurs. Whether one takes the hyperbole “99.999999999999999% of the time” as the equivalent of all the time, almost all the time, most of the time, etc. is not of much interest to me. Red herring served by a troll.

/rant on

As I’ve written before, communication divides neatly into receptive and expressive categories: what we can understand when communicated to us and what we can in turn communicate effectively to others. The first category is the larger of the two and is greatly enhanced by concerted study of the second. Thus, reading comprehension isn’t merely a matter of looking up words in the dictionary but learning how it’s customary and correct to express oneself within the rules and guidelines of Standard American English (SAE). As others’ writing and communication becomes more complex, competent reception is more nearly an act of deciphering. Being able to parse sentences, grasp paragraph structure, and follow the logical thread (assuming those elements are handled well) is essential. That’s what being literate means, as opposed to being semi-literate — the fate of lots of adults who never bothered to study.

To state flatly that “good enough” is good enough is to accept two unnecessary limitations: (1) that only a portion of someone’s full, intended message is received and (2) that one’s own message is expressed with no better than adolescent sophistication, if that. Because humans are not mind readers, loss of fidelity between communicated intent and receipt is acknowledged. Further limiting oneself to lazy and unsophisticated usage is, by way of analogy, to reduce the full color spectrum to black and white. Even further, the suggestion that students can learn to express themselves properly once they have something to say misses the whole point of education, which is to prepare them with adult skills in advance of need.

As I understand it, modern American schools have shifted their English curricula away from the structural, prescriptive approach toward licentious usage just to get something onto the page, or in a classroom discussion, just to choke something out of students between the hemming ums, ers, uhs, ya knows, and I dunnos. I’d like to say that I’m astonished that researchers could provide cover for not bothering to learn, relieving both teachers and students of the arduous work needed to develop competence, if not mastery. That devaluation tracks directly from teachers and administrators to students and parents, the latter of whom would rather argue for their grades than earn them. Pity the fools who grub for grades without actually learning and are left holding worthless diplomas and degrees — certificates of nonachievement. In all likelihood, they simply won’t understand their own incompetence because they’ve been told all their lives what special flowers they are.

/rant off

My work commute typically includes bus, train, and walking legs to arrive at my destination. If wakefulness and an available seat allow, I often read on the bus and train. (This is getting to be exceptional compared to other commuters, who are more typically lost in their phones listening to music, watching video, checking FB, or playing games. Some are undoubtedly reading, like me, but electronic media, which I find distasteful, alter the experience fundamentally from ink on paper.) Today, I was so absorbed in my reading that by the time I looked up, I missed my bus stop, and half an hour later, I nearly missed my train stop, too. The experience of tunnel vision in deep concentration is not at all unfamiliar to me, but it is fleeting and unpredictable. More typical is a relaxed yet alert concentration that for me takes almost no effort anymore.

So what sent me ’round the bend? The book I’m currently reading, Nick Carr’s The Glass Cage, takes a diversion into the work of poet Robert Frost. Carr uses Frost to illustrate his point about immersion in bodily work with manageable difficulty lending the world a more robust character than the detached, frictionless world experienced with too much technological mediation and ease. Carr does a terrific job contextualizing Frost’s lyric observations in a way quite unlike the contextual analysis one might undertake in a high school or college classroom, which too often makes the objects of study lifeless and irrelevant. Carr’s discussion put me unexpectedly into an aesthetic mode of contemplation, as distinguished from analytic or kinesthetic modes. There are probably others.

I don’t often go into aesthetic mode. It requires the right sort of stimulation. The Carr/Frost combination put me there, and so I tunneled into the book and forgot my commute. That momentary disorientation is often pleasurable, but for me, it can also be distressing. My infrequent visits to art museums are often accompanied by a vague unease at the sometimes nauseating emotionalism of the works on display. It’s an honest response, though I expect most folks can’t quite understand why something beautiful would provoke something resembling a negative response. In contrast, my experience in the concert hall is usually frustration, as musicians have become ever more corporate and professional in their performance over time to the detriment and exclusion of latent emotional content. I suppose that as Super Bowl Sunday is almost upon us (about which I care not at all), the typical viewer gets an emotional/aesthetic charge out of that overhyped event, especially if the game is hotly contested rather than a blowout. I seek and find my moments in less crass expressions of the human spirit.

Every blog post I write suffers from the same basic problem: drawing disparate ideas together in succinct, cogent form that expresses enough of the thesis to make sense while leaving room for commentary, discussion, and development. Alas, commentary and discussion are nearly nonexistent, but that’s always been my expectation and experience given my subjects. When expanding a blog into several parts, the greatest risk is that ideas fail to coalesce legibly, compounded by the unlikelihood that readers who happen to navigate here will bother to read all the parts. (I suspect this is due in part to most readers’ inability to comprehend complex, multipart writing, as discussed in this blog post by Ugo Bardi describing surprising levels of functional illiteracy.) So this addendum to my three-part blog on Dissolving Reality is doomed, like the rest of my blog, to go unread and ignored. Plus ça change

Have you had the experience of buying a new model of vehicle and suddenly noticed other vehicles of the same model on the road? That’s what I’ve been noticing since I hatched my thesis (noting with habitual resignation that there is nothing new under the sun), which is that the debased information environment now admits multiple interpretations of reality, none of which can lay exclusive claim to authority as an accurate account. Reality has instead dissolved into a stew of competing arguments, often extremely politicized, which typically appeal to emotion. Historically, the principal conflict was between different ways of knowing exemplified by faith and reason, perhaps better understood as the church (in the West, the Catholic Church) vs. science. Floodgates have now opened to any wild interpretation one might concoct, all of which coexist on roughly equal footing in the marketplace of ideas. (more…)

Before continuing with my series on “Pre-Extinction Follies,” I want to divert to an idea I’ve struggled with for some time, namely, that by virtue of socialization and education (and especially higher education), we train our minds to think according to a variety of different filters. Which filter is most powerful and for what objectives is a question that leads to many potential answers, such as, just for example, (1) the scientific worldview and its follow-on power to manipulate (and pollute) the land, sky, and oceans of the planet, (2) the spiritual worldview and its power to transfix the human psyche, (3) the artistic worldview and its power to resonate with emotion and intuition, or (4) the sportsman’s worldview and its power to construe the world in terms of pointless endless cycles of competitions, games, and championships. As I observed here, there is considerable overlap that makes distinguishing between competing worldviews somewhat questionable, but considering how depth and nuance is driven out of most points of view, keywords, soundbites, and dogma function just fine to separate and define people according to classes, races, demographic groups, etc.

The idea of twisted minds, never far from my thinking, came to the fore again recently because of two experiences: reading (at long last) Joe Bageant’s Rainbow Pie and getting HBO, which granted access to comedy shows (Real Time with Bill Maher and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver) that rework political and cultural news to make it palatable to and digestible by the masses. Having been a viewer of The Daily Show for some time and long before that a variety of Bill Maher’s exploits, I appreciate the acumen it takes to transmit (some of) the news comically. That particular filter is precisely why I go there. Along the way, I get exposure to lots of ideas I normally avoid (yes, I practice a form of information aversion at the same time I’m an information sponge, though not a political junkie or news hound), but I don’t kid myself as hosts of those shows sometimes chide their own audiences that I’m getting all of the news there.

Still, I can’t help but feel frustration at the way various media folks twist the news. In unscripted interviews and panel discussions in particular, ask a question of an economist and an economics answer results. The same is true, respectively, of news anchors, magazine and blog writers, and celebrities (mostly actors). They may have excellent command of the issues, but their minds reshape issues according to their training and/or vocation, which makes me want to hurl things at the screen because opinions and policy are frequently so constrained and twisted they become idiotic. An economist who promotes growth is a good example (more of what’s destroying us, please!). The worst, though, are politicians. Career politicians (is there any other kind?) are conditioned to distort issues beyond recognition and to deal with people (and their issues) as demographics to be shuffled in the abstract around the imaginary surface of some playing field. Dedication to service of the commonweal is long gone, replaced by theater, spin doctoring, and perpetual campaigning.

In contrast, someone comes along infrequently who has the wit and god’s eye view necessary to contextualize and synthesize modern information glut effectively and then tell the truth, the latter of which carries a very high value for me. That would be Joe Bageant, whose writing and perspective are fundamentally alien to me yet communicate with power and clarity, cutting through all the manufactured bullshit of trained and twisted minds. Writing about literacy, Bageant has this to say about the redneck folks (the white underclass) he knew and was part of growing up:

  1. They do not have the necessary basic skills, and don’t give a rat’s ass about getting them;
  2. Reading is not arresting enough to compete with the electronic stimulation in which their society is immersed;
  3. They cannot envisage any possible advantage in reading, because the advantages stem from extended personal involvement, which they have never experienced, are conditioned away from, and is understandably beyond their comprehension; and
  4. Their peers do not read as a serious matter, thereby socially reinforcing their early conclusion that it’s obviously not worth the time and effort ….

Elsewhere, Bageant writes about the unacknowledged lessons of class warfare that his brethren knew as a matter of intuition from living through it rather than through abstract instructions of some sociology text or teacher. We all possess that intuition about a wide array of issues, but we suppress most of it as a result of educational conditioning and conformity (the rightthink or political correctness for which we congratulate ourselves on issues such as sexism, racism, and LGBT rights). So we prefer the happy lies and fables of politicians, entertainers, and educators to the awful truth of what’s really happening all around us, plain to see. It’s a systemic fraud in which we all participate.

What strikes me, too, is that education (or literacy) does not function as a panacea for the masses. Over-educated Icelanders made that clear roughly a decade ago. Bageant decries the ignorance (“ignernce”) of his social stratum and their continuous knuckling under to their supposed betters, yet he admits they flee into the middle and upper classes when opportunity arises, social mobility usually resulting from educational accomplishment. The unspoken conclusion, however, is that the educated elite conspire (albeit sometimes unwittingly) to perpetuate and intensify class warfare and to preserve their enhanced position on the scale. And they do so with the armature of education.