Archive for the ‘Manners’ Category

Here’s another interesting tidbit from Anthony Giddens’ book The Consequences of Modernity, which is the subject of a series of book blogs I’ve been writing. In his discussion of disembedding mechanisms, he introduces the idea of civil inattention (from Goffman, actually). This has partly to do with presence or absence (including inattention) in both public and private settings where face-to-face contact used to be the only option but modern technologies have opened up the possibility of faceless interactions over distance, such as with the telegraph and telephone. More recently, the face has been reintroduced with videoconferencing, but nonverbal cues such as body language are largely missing; the fullness of communication remains attenuated. All manner of virtual or telepresence are in fact cheap facsimiles of true presence and the social cohesion and trust enabled by what Giddens calls facework commitments. Of course, we delude ourselves that interconnectivity mediated by electronics is a reasonable substitute for presence and attention, which fellow blogger The South Roane Agrarian bemoans with this post.

Giddens’ meaning is more specific than this, though. The inattention of which Giddens writes is not the casual distraction of others with which we all increasingly familiar. Rather, Giddens takes note social behaviors embedded in deep culture having to do with signalling trust.

Two people approach and pass one another on a city sidewalk. What could be more trivial and uninteresting? … Yet something is going on here which links apparently minor aspects of bodily management to some of the most pervasive features of modernity. The “inattention” displayed is not indifference. Rather it is a carefully monitored demonstration of what might be called polite estrangement. As the two people approach one another, each rapidly scans the face of the other, looking away as they pass … The glance accords recognition of the other as an agent and as a potential acquaintance. Holding the gaze of the other only briefly, then looking ahead as each passes the other couples such an attitude with an implicit reassurance of lack of hostile intent. [p. 81]

It’s a remarkably subtle interaction: making eye contact to confirm awareness of another but then averting one’s eyes to establish that copresence poses no particular threat in either direction. Staring too fixedly at another communicates something quite else, maybe fear or threat or disapprobation. By denying eye contact — by keeping one’s eyes buried in a handheld device, for instance — the opportunity to establish a modicum of trust between strangers is missed. Intent (or lack thereof) is a mystery. In practice, such modern-day inattention is mere distraction, not a sign of malevolence, but the ingrained social cue is obviated and otherwise banal happenstances become sources of irritation, discomfort, and/or unease, as with someone who doesn’t shake hands or perform others types of greeting properly.

I wrote before about my irritation with others face-planted in their phones. It is not a matter of outright offense but rather a quiet sense of affront at failure to adopt accepted social behaviors (as I once did). Giddens puts it this way:

Tact and rituals of politeness are mutual protective devices, which strangers or acquaintances knowingly use (mostly on the level of practical consciousness) as a kind of implicit social contact. Differential power, particularly where it is very marked, can breach or skew norms …. [pp. 82–83]

That those social behaviors have adapted to omnipresent mobile media, everyone pacified or hypnotized within their individual bubbles, is certainly not a salutary development. It is, however, a clear consequence of modernity.

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Sorry, there seems to be no end to the ink spilled over the presumptive winner of the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump. Everyone has a pet theory, and I’m no different. Actually, I have several competing theories, none of which are particularly exclusive from the others. My theory du jour is basically that Trump represents the schoolyard bully, though his sandbox is quite a lot bigger than those in grade school. His campaign came right out of the gate intimidating and bullying others in the most egregious way, so it was easy to believe for a long while that he would either undo himself or a bigger bully would come along to knock him down. Well, neither happened.

What seems to be more typical instead is that, in addition to indulgence in gladiatorial games and blood sport (i.e., the debates) that never lost their base appeal to the masses, a surprising number of supporters at all levels have fallen in behind the uberbully, happy to stand in his shadow lest his roving eye land upon them. So there are equal parts glee at witnessing others get bullied and relief that at least it’s not oneself on the receiving end. Before all is said and done, which could be years, I rather expect lots of people to seek refuge in Trump’s shadow, however temporary. The blood lust probably won’t wear off anytime soon, either. That’s who we’ve become, if indeed we were ever any other sort of people (which is arguable).

As an armchair social critic with neither audience nor influence, I can only wring my hands and offer a few pithy remarks. They amount to nothing. Likely, I’ll get sand kicked in my face (or worse), too, since I lack immunity. Further, I am not so willing to line up behind someone to save myself. I’ve had that experience before, though in small measure and less manifestly, and it was troubling to recognize in myself a failure of character. The troubling times coming will surely test all of us sorely. I can only hope that, when forced to decide, I demonstrate higher integrity than my own past. Others will make their own choices.

A little more content lite (even though my complaint is unavoidable). Saw on Motherboard a report on a first-person, Web-based shopping game about Black Friday zombie mall shoppers. You can play here. It’s pure kitsch but does reinforce the deplorable behaviors of sale-crazed shoppers swarming over each other to get at goodies (especially cheap electronics), sometimes coming to blows. Videos of 2015 Black Friday brawls appeared almost immediately.

We apparently learn nothing year-over-year as we reenact our ritual feeding frenzy, lasting all the way through New Year’s Eve. (I never go out on Black Friday.) I might have guessed that big box retailers face diminishing returns with store displays torn apart, disgruntled shoppers, traumatized employees, and the additional cost of rent-a-cops to herd the masses and maintain order (which obviously doesn’t work in many instances). Yet my e-mail inbox keeps loading up with promotions and advertisements, even a day later. The video game in particular reminds me of Joe Bageant’s great line: “We have embraced the machinery of our undoing as recreation.”

The video below came to my attention recently, which shows a respectable celebrity, violinist/conductor Itzhak Perlman, being dicked around in an interview he probably undertook in good faith. My commentary follows.

Publicized pranks and gotchas are by no means rare. Some are good-natured and quite funny, but one convention of the prank is to unmask it pretty quickly. In the aftermath, the target typically either laughs if off, leaves without comment, or less often, storms out in disgust. Andy Kaufman as “Tony Clifton” was probably among the first to sustain a prank well past the point of discomfort, never unmasking himself. Others have since gotten in on the antics, though results are probably not any worse dickishness (dickery?) than Kaufman’s.

Fake interviews by comedians posing as news people are familiar to viewers of The Daily Show and its spinoff The Colbert Report (its run now completed). Zack Galifianakis does the same schtick in Between Two Ferns. It always surprises me when targets fall into the trap, exposing themselves as clueless ideologues willing to be hoisted with their own petards. However, Colbert in particular balanced his arch Republican stage persona with an unmistakable respect for his interview subject, which was at times inspired. Correspondents from The Daily Show are frequently pretty funny, but they almost never convey any respect for the subjects of the interview. Nick Canellakis (shown above) apparently has a whole series of interviews with classical musicians where he feigns idiocy and insult. Whereas some interview subjects are media savvy enough to get the joke and play along, I find this attempt at humor tasteless and unbearable.

Further afield, New Media Rockstars features a burgeoning list of media hosts who typically operate cheaply over the Web via YouTube, supported by an array of social media. At least one, Screen Junkies (the only one I watch), has recently blown into an entire suite of shows. I won’t accuse them all of being talentless hacks or dicking people around for pointless yuks, but I often pause to wonder what makes the shows worth producing beyond the hosts’ embarrassingly encyclopedic knowledge of comics, cartoons, TV shows, movies, etc. They’re fanboys (and girls) who have leveraged their misspent youth and eternal adolescence to gush and gripe about their passions. Admittedly, this may not be so different from sports fanatics (especially human statisticians), opera geeks, and nerds of others stripes.

Throwaway media may have unintentionally smuggled in tasteless shenanigans such as those by Nick Canellakis. Various comedians (unnamed) have similarly offered humorless discomfort as entertainment. Reality TV shows explored this area a while back, which I called trainwreck television. Cheaply produced video served over the Web has unleashed a barrage of dreck in all these categories. Some shows may eventually find their footing and become worthwhile. In the meantime, I anticipate seeing plenty more self-anointed media hosts dicking around celebrities and audiences alike.

Kyung Wha Chung has been in the back of my mind for decades. Her recording of the Berg (and Bartók) Violin Concerto(s) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti has long been on my list of favorite recordings, all the more so for making a difficult work intelligible to the listener. Her other recordings have mostly escaped my attention, and I’ve never heard her perform live. Three interesting developments have brought her again to my attention: Decca’s new release of a box set of her recordings, her return to the London stage that first brought her fame, and her regrettable response to an audience coughing fit from that stage. Coverage of the last two news items has been provided by Norman Lebrecht at his website Slipped Disc. I’ve linked to Lebrecht twice in the past, but he’s not on my blogroll because he writes deplorable clickbait headlines. I appreciate his work aggregating classical music news, which is mostly about personnel (hiring and firing), but his obvious pandering irks me. The incident of the coughing spasm filtering through the audience, however, attracted my attention independent of the individuals involved. Commentary at Slipped Disc runs the gamut from “she was right to respond” to “an artist should never acknowledge the public in such a manner.” The conflict is irresolvable, of course, but let me opine anyway.

Only a few venues/activities exist where cultured people go to enjoy themselves in the exercise of good manners and taste. The concert hall (classical music, including chamber music and solo recitals but not popular musics) is one such oasis. Charges of snobbery and elitism are commonplace when criticisms of the fine arts come into play, but the mere fact that absolutely anyone can buy a ticket and attend puts the lie to that. Better to focus such coarse thinking on places like golf, country, and suppers clubs that openly exclude nonmembers, typically on the basis of nonpayment of onerous membership fees. Other bases for exclusion I will leave alone. (The supposition that sophistication accompanies wealth is absurd, as anyone having acquaintance with such places can attest.) I note, too, that democratization of everything has brought more access to fine arts to everyone — but at a cost, namely, the manners and self-control needed for the audience space to function effectively has eroded in the last few decades.

Is has been said that all arts aspire to the condition of music, with its unity of subject matter and form that fosters direct connection to the emotions. As such, the concert artist (and ensembles) in the best case scenario casts an emotional spell over audiences. In response, audiences cannot sit in stony silence but should be emotionally open and engaged. Distractions, whether visual or aural, unavoidably dispel the tone established in performance, no matter if they happen to occur during the brief interval between movements rather than during performance. A noisy, extended interval where the audience coughed, fidgeted, and otherwise rearranged itself reportedly occurred after the first movement of a Mozart sonata performed by Kyung Wha Chung, and she was irritated enough to respond indelicately by upbraiding the parent of a child, the child unfortunately being among the last to be heard coughing. As a result, there was a palpable tension in the room that didn’t wear off, not unlike when an audience turns on a performer.

Audience disruption at concerts is not at all unusual; in some estimations, lack of decorum has only increased over the years. My first memory of a concert being temporarily derailed by the audience was in the middle 1980s. So now the arguments are flying back and forth, such as that the audience pays to see/hear what’s offered onstage and the artist has no business complaining. Another goes that the artist should be operating on a lofty aesthetic plane that would disallow notice-taking of audience behavior. (Miles Davis is renowned and sometimes reviled for having often turned his back to the audience in performance.) Both quite miss the point that it is precisely an emotional circuit among composer (or by proxy, the composer’s work), performer, and audience that makes the endeavor worthwhile. Excellence in composition and performance are requirements, and so too is the thoughtful contribution of the audience to close the circuit. Suggestions that boorish behavior by audiences is irrelevant fail to account for the sensitivity needed among all parties to make the endeavor effective.

It happens that I gave a solo recital a few months ago, my first in more than a decade. I am by no means an artist anywhere near the accomplishment of Kyung Wha Chung (few are, frankly), but I rely on audience response the same as any performer. My first surprise was the number of no-shows among my friends and peers who had confirmed their attendance. Then, after the completion of the first four-movement sonata, the audience sat silently, not making a peep. It fell to me to respond, to invite applause, to overcome the anxiety in the room regarding the proper way to act. (Clapping between movements is not customary, and clumsy audiences who clap in the wrong places have sometimes been shushed, so I surmised there was fear about when applause was supposed to happen.) Further, due to the awkwardness of the performance space (only one place the piano would fit), three latecomers (35+ min. into the performance) paraded right past me, between movements, to get seated. I was affected by these surprises but tried to take them in stride. Still, it’s fair to say my concentration was more than a little rattled. So I have some sympathy for any performer whose audience behaves unpredictably.

At the extremes, there are artists whose performance style is deep concentration or a nearly hypnotic state where even small disruptions take them out of the moment, whereas others can continue unimpeded through an air raid. No one-size-fits-all solution exists, of course, and in hindsight, it’s always possible to imagine better ways to respond to setbacks. However, I cannot join in the side of the debate that condemns Kyung Wha Chung, however regrettable her response was.

Morris Berman came forward with an interesting bit about the New Monastic Individual (NMI) first described in his book The Twilight of American Culture. He wrote two addition books to complete his second trilogy: Dark Ages America (also the title of his blog) and Why America Failed, taking from the latter the initials WAF to denote followers, commentators, acolytes, and habitués of his blog using the term Wafer. I hesitate to quote too liberally, since Prof. Berman sometimes puts up copyright notices at the ends of his blogs; I’ll redact this at the slightest whiff of an infringement challenge:

  1. Wafers recognize that 99% of those around them, if they are living in the United States, are basically stupid and nasty. This is not said so much as a judgment as a description: it’s simply the way things are, and these things are not going to change any time soon. Wafers know this, and they accept it.
  2. The lives of Wafers are driven by knowledge, not fear or fantasy. They are living in reality, in short, not drowning in the mass illusions of contemporary America.
  3. Wafers are serious about their lives. They are not here on this earth to waste time, to piss their lives away on other people’s agendas, as are most Americans — right up to and including the president. Their goals are truth, love, and joy, and they are dedicated to pursuing them.
  4. Finally, Wafers feel sorry for non-Wafers, and if they can, try to help them. They recognize, of course (see #1), that most cannot be helped; but if they come across someone who shows signs of potential Waferdom, of awakening to the the three points mentioned above, they try to fish them out of the drink, so to speak, and set them on the path of dignity, intelligence, integrity, and self-respect. Noblesse oblige, that sort of thing.

Numbers 1–3 are well and good. I’ve been a subscriber since Twilight was published. Evidence for the negative assessments is obvious and easy to obtain. Carving out a special place for a few Wafers to congratulate themselves (no. 4), however, strikes me as pissy and ungracious. But this isn’t precisely what I want to blog about. Rather, it’s how a former intellectual model of mine has fallen into disgrace, not that he would recognize or admit it. (This is IMO worse than the irrelevance complained about at his blog.) Prof. Berman was among the first to awaken in me a real curiosity in deeper stories behind cheap façades offered by most historical accounts, which form a dissatisfying consensus reality. I don’t possess the academic wherewithal to emulate him, but I’m a critical reader and can synthesize a lot of information.

(more…)

Personal Space

Posted: October 30, 2012 in Idle Nonsense, Manners, Tacky
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It was in high school when I first heard the pejorative great unwashed masses. I didn’t know then that one of the principal points of reference is an 1868 book by Thomas Wright about the working class in Victorian England. The longer phrase great unwashed masses of humanity was apparently first used by Edmund Burke but often appears in the short form great unwashed. Even to my uninitiated ear, it immediately conjured up the ignorati, know nothings, or more specific to a bygone era, the laboring class whose hygiene and uncultured tastes were clear class separators. Some decades later now, I understand the term more generally as referring to the public, Ortega y Gasset’s mass man, an undifferentiated mob encountered anonymously on the street. These days, outside of a few construction workers or day laborers, I don’t find anyone’s hygiene to be at issue, nor do most encounters offer the possibility of determining what anyone may know (though I suspect most know nothing worth knowing), but one starkly irritating impression is that people lack a proper sense of personal space. This is reinforced daily and with alarming intensity.

My daily commute includes legs on sidewalks, buses, trains, plazas, hallways, corridors, aisles, atria, escalators, and elevators. Each surround and its choke points and bottlenecks implies its own unique traffic flows, and I find myself jostling in close proximity to others especially in the confined spaces of buses and trains. Some indignities are to be expected, though nothing perhaps like those inflicted by packers on Japanese subways who shove people into trains like sardines. (In Chicago, we either pack ourselves in or step back and wait for a less crowded train.) I try to be patient and forgiving, since the alternative is to get stressed about it, but emotion sometimes overwhelms me and I shoot a nasty look.

/rant on

Listen, idiot: I know you’re from outta town (Blue Line from O’Hare to the Loop) and don’t know the etiquette, but do I really have to ask (?!) you to move your purse/briefcase/bags off the seat so I or someone else can sit? And you with the smartphone stuck to your nose: open your bloody eyes and watch where you’re going. Whatever information is displayed on that tiny screen for your tiny brain can surely wait. And WTF is up with dingleheads who step into obvious traffic flow only to stop to get bearings? (Try that on the roadway, frogger, and see what it gets you!) Does your entitlement extend to the entire sidewalk or corridor like no one else is traversing that space? Has becoming a screenhead narrowed your peripheral vision so you can only see directly ahead? And if you’re on an escalator and have gorged on too many Big Gulps to suffer climbing stairs anymore, maybe you could at least move your fat ass (and the wheelie bag you can’t carry anymore, either) to one side so a few of the rest of us can squeeze by your bulk! I know this is a lot to ask, but if you’re in a tight space on the bus or train, maybe you can unshoulder your purse or backpack and stop poking me in the back or butt with it. Much appreciated.

And while I’ve got my dander up, the exoskeleton of an automobile surrounding your body is not actually an extension of personal space. Nor is it okay to line-jump or cut others off at the ramp or any of a variety of other behaviors you jokers indulge in from the illusion of comfort and safety in the driver’s seat of your behemoth SUV. That shit actually causes accidents where people are injured — and all so that you can wait in line a couple car lengths further in front? Asshole … scratch that. Idiot asshat!

What really amazes me, however, is the number of people I see waddling around with compromised locomotion — almost always someone in middle age who has blimped up to the size of a small planet and wears a circus tent like it’s spandex. Nearly everyone gains some weight after the metabolism of youth slows, but really! Isn’t the discomfort of no longer being able to lift your leg — having to swing it around the side to move — isn’t that enough motivation to, um, stop supersizing your meals or maybe just forgo the pop for water?

/rant off

I got carried away in a face-to-face exchange recently and brought too much ammunition to the debate, which resulted in my blindsided interlocutor shutting down and dismissing me rather than suffer the conclusions my arguments required. I clearly overwhelmed her, which is good sport on talk TV, though overwhelming someone is usually accomplished by being louder and more insistent than by being convincing, and in retrospect, I felt some regret at being such a needless bully.

The episode made me think about how I can sometimes be insufferable, not because I’m in error necessarily (though that’s always possible) but because I’m prone to turn over rocks others would rather leave unexamined. As further ideas cascaded out of my head, I quickly hit upon three terrible truly true truths that typically cause others to dislike or even hate me for pointing them out. Under normal circumstances, I have the good sense not to shove truth in others’ faces. But I’m easily excited by ideas in an abstract way and can become intemperate. With all that in mind, I will unburden myself of the first terrible truly true truth and leave the other two unrevealed as too controversial. The first is uncontroversial yet is among the most enduring problems of philosophy: the foreknowledge of our own deaths, or what is sometimes called the human condition. Rest assured, I don’t have an exhaustive treatment. Just a few comments.

Fear of death is a sort of existential dread peculiar to humans, who alone among the animals (or so we think) can conceptualize time, escape the eternal present, and project forward to our own nonexistence. Death ranks as one of our greatest fears, but unlike others, there is nothing to project the fear onto or to rebel against. So we tend to put it out of mind or sweep it under the rug. Most of us are spared detailed knowledge of the time and manner of our demise, but as death approaches in advanced age, I’ve witnessed how some people begin to get more comfortable with it, losing the dread, perhaps even finally welcoming the inevitable.

In other cultures and other times, death probably did not haunt us through our days quite like it does now. For instance, those who obtain meat by slaughtering animals are far more intimately acquainted with death than those of us who get meat in hygienic, cellophane-wrapped packaging at the grocery. Medical practitioners are also undoubtedly very humanely aware of human mortality. Like many truths these days, however, death for many of us is stowed away and marginalized as some far-off news event that happens to other people, and even when it appears in our personal lives in, say, the loss of a family member, our grieving process is markedly dysfunctional.

My expectation is that the day may soon come when overpopulation begins to rebalance and carts will traverse the streets manned by public workers calling out “Bring out yer dead!” This isn’t a prediction of The Rapture, the rollover of the Mayan calendar, or some other end-of-times scenario. Rather, it’s a simple extrapolation of the likely effects of increased unavailability of energy to run civilization coupled with disruptions including climate change and ecological collapse. This, by the way, is not one of the three terrible truly true truths, though perhaps it ought to be.

Listening

Posted: March 25, 2011 in Consciousness, Idle Nonsense, Manners

This is pretty funny: an article on “How to Be a Better Listener” in the Chicago Tribune. In next week’s column, learn how to walk on two legs! But in the meantime, listen up! Here’s the set-up:

Did you know that March is International Listening Awareness Month? According to the International Listening Association (ILA), we only retain about 50 percent of what we hear immediately after we hear it, and only another 20 percent beyond that. So how can we get those percentages to rise?

I suspect the author knows nothing about cognition and makes the usual assumption that increasing those percentages means improved cognition. Well, sorry, that’s not the way perception/memory works. We discard the bulk of immediate perception to make room for new stimuli constantly flowing in. If we didn’t, the tank would overflow and nothing new would get in.

If the article were instead about focusing one’s attention, then maybe there would be something useful in it. She gives five suggestions that mostly amount to the same thing:

  1. Don’t take notes at meetings.
  2. Clear your mind.
  3. Absorb the feedback.
  4. Don’t argue, understand.
  5. Body language is key.

All but the last are about eliminating or reducing distractions by getting out of one’s own head and paying attention to someone else. This is good advice all the time. The last is unnecessary: body language is perceived subliminally. Conscious awareness of it is not generally necessary.

Against the tiny voice of conscience telling me not to, I started to use the self-checkout lanes at the grocery store. These cost-saving and efficiency services join an already well-established and growing trend toward self-service that probably began when gas stations (used to be called service stations) stopped employing anyone to pump gas and banks replaced tellers with ATMs. The number of machine interfaces used every day in the service industry continues to grow, as do disincentives fees to talk to an actual person. Some self-service options appear to be neutral or even beneficial, such as the automated check-in lanes at the airport that enable low-maintenance travelers to avoid unnecessary lines. But that tiny voice keeps buzzing in the back of my brain.

A cost-benefit analysis ought to accompany consideration of every new technology and workflow that appears in the marketplace. However, in a culture easily duped led by the latest gee-whiz gadgetry, what actually exists is more like an if-you-build-it-they-will-come assurance that subscribers will be lined up outside the door, around the block, and halfway to the next state line for days on end in anticipation of the release of each new version of the Apple iPhone or some similar device.

The automatic embrace of technology is a deep question, as it turns out. Techno-Utopians seem to fall in love with every new offering while more sober questioning by cultural conservatives goes mostly unheeded. That questioning typically involves a sense of creeping loss of humanity as we orient more of our daily lives to interactions not with each other but with machines, essentially bypassing the social realm, failing to adopt everyday manners or patience, and worst of all, settling for a stunted sense of empathy, which drives (or fails to drive) compassion and forgiveness.

Machines never require forgiveness; they merely execute our commands. So if the grocery store self-service lane fails to recognize our inputs (or is engineered to be difficult to trick, leading to situations where it locks up to prevent fraudulent transactions), there is no reason for restraint on the part of the user, whose self-service checkout lane rage rises quickly. Such fast-trigger anger is commonplace among self-service devices, as with social media, perhaps because without another human directly involved in the transaction (or the other human so thoroughly mediated by technology as to be a mere avatar), users lose their normal social inhibitions and vent too easily.