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Other people’s phones

December 12, 2010

I am often disturbed to find myself the only one on the bus not using an iPhone or something like it.  There’s no telling what they’re all doing.  The iPhone can perform so many functions, each requiring the same bowed head and the same finger-grubbing micro-gestures, that its users become inscrutable to others.  Read a book or a newspaper and it’s clear what you’re up to.  Headphones are merely an accessory: music is less activity than accompaniment.  But pull out a smart phone and you become instantly vague, perhaps even to yourself.  I’m a seasoned iPhone user, but still I never know quite what I’m doing.  It could always be, from one moment to the next, something else.  The iPhone thus dials down the need to make even minor decisions about what you are doing and how you will appear to others.  You ride the little movements of your fingertips.  Commitments are weakened.  Life in the city is necessarily an exercise in ignoring other people, but this studied ignorance is fascinating to watch in its various forms, many of them quite revealing.  With iPhones and their illegible users, the picture goes slightly blurry.  The imagination is cut off.  If I wonder anything at all, it is usually about what the device is doing and what it’s screen is showing, rather than about the person, where she came from and where she may be going.


Animatronic love

December 5, 2010

Your average internet-age mash-up aims to short-circuit the viewer’s brain.  There is a momentary jolt of recognition, then the smell of burnt-out neurons.  Now that little brain fissure can’t be used for anything else.  The connections, melted, return to their Pavlovian function.  You can no longer think of Pride and Prejudice without thinking of zombies–LOL.  The internet is full of things that can’t be unseen or unthought.

But this, this is some modern-day demonological conjuration in the same league as seeing infants speak and watching film of your grandparents doing heroic, sexy things before you were born.  The savage midbrain does not know whether to laugh or strike out in terror.

That song is exactly what those beings would be singing if they had aged along with the children they were created for in the 1980s.

The lake in early winter

December 2, 2010
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The duck travels along the surface of the water.  We travel on an asphalt path and its gravel apron, avoiding runners and dogs and strollers.  Today is sunny:  the young women are out in numbers, silently.  I walked with a friend, eating hamburgers and coffee, discussing the humiliations of aging suffered by our grandparents and soon, perhaps, to be delivered to our parents.  His mother, he said, claimed that she would kill herself if she ever got to the point where she could no longer talk straight or had to wear a helmet just to stand up.  I thought this was the kind of thing that people say as a way of trying to change the past.  It was not an intention, but a wish, a guilty wish, on her own mother’s behalf.  At any rate, I was wondering about something else.  I had an idea that I had long held in reserve and I was looking for some of way of turning it, like the soil, hoping that some fresh indication of fertility would rise.  I thought, basically, that food was my young generation’s new drug of choice.  The local, the organic, the ethnic, the gluten-free, the artisanal: it was all new form of fashion for a demanding, gluttonous people.  It was all bullshit.  We had been raised in the 1980s on cheap corn and protein.  That surplus of induced appetite still existed, exercised now on other things as it got older, with a bad conscience and some cash.  I didn’t know what to make of this but I thought that it had to be connected somehow.  I didn’t want to be someone who made a big deal out of his pleasures and used them as a substitute for something else.  I didn’t want to be humiliated by them when I no longer had the will or the logic to perform whatever act of transubstantiation other people were pulling.  My friend said that right before his grandfather died angry he was drunk all the time.  He vomited and every time he did it was deep blue.  I laughed at this.  I imagined a future where the old passed different colors as their insides went to mush.  Not just any colors but bright, childlike, electric colors, constantly changing, more rapidly and more iridescent as the end neared.  We passed under some trees and found a girl crouched on her roller skates, looking out.  There was a motionless wood duck there and when it turned into the light, it flew away.


Consider the Wigger

November 30, 2010

The wigger is the last honest white man in America.  I say this not because I am about to argue that inauthenticity is the only remaining form of authenticity.  Nor I do not want to romanticize false consciousness.  There is enough of that to buckle all the structural beams of America.  I need simply to inspect the deep roots of the affection I have felt for every genuine wigger I’ve ever met.

The word is a portmanteau of white and nigger.  A wigger is thus a young white man who adopts the stereotyped style, tastes, and mannerisms of hip-hop culture, which is to say, a culture that belongs to poor black youth.  Most young white people do this occasionally by listening to rap or dropping some lingo for humorous effect.  The wigger does it all the time and with utter, youthful seriousness.

As a first move, separate wiggers from the various impersonators and appropriators of black culture, many of them all too prominent.  Al Jolson was a paradigmatic impersonator, the Rolling Stones are appropriators.  Wiggers, though, are not doing it to entertain anyone, least of all themselves.  Impersonation and appropriation both imply a degree of creative mixing.  Wiggers are not creative.  They are not artists.  They aim for a straightforward reduplication, from which they have nothing to gain economically, and probably much to lose.  Impersonators and appropriators, if they last, win fans.  Wiggers are clowns derided and/or laughed at by serious-minded people both black and white.  Or rather, they would be clowns, if only they were in the joke.

That wiggers are a joke says a great deal.  There are few cultural types who are so inherently comical.  A small part of the humor is simply that anything exaggerated enough becomes funny and white people, in order to come off as culturally black, necessarily resort to exaggeration, often without much skill.  But I believe the bulk of it comes from the fact that the wigger is trying, impossibly, to occupy a nonexistent piece of cultural territory, to stand on thin air.  There are in modern day America cultural roles that simply do not make sense for white people to play.  They do not tally, except as comedy or taboo.

Race in America has gone from a political and economic to a cultural matter.  We talk about race by talking about culture.  By  some measures the country is highly integrated.  At the level of consumption, white audiences are eager to buy the products of black artists.  But this is cultural integration only in a superficial sense, no matter how much those white audiences come to appreciate the works of their black countrymen.  Cultural appreciation can be done at home in one’s spare time.  There is no risk here.  None at all. Culture is about more than art and artifacts, it is about the spirit that expresses itself through them.  Facing that spirit is a more an order more demanding by far than simply buying records or offering well-placed sympathy and applause.  Is there really no deeper form of spiritual miscegenation that we might attempt?  The wigger is the last white soldier for this cause.

That this function has fallen to someone like the typical wigger speaks of much a wider failure.  When the issue of race is culturalized, it is no more possible to participate deeply in the culture of others than it is to change one’s race.  Education makes us respect cultural differences, but it also makes us over-cautious.  We are willing to sample others’ culture but only behind layer of playful unease, which is to say, not very seriously and at a certain distance.

I also want to attempt an argument that the gap, of which the wigger is symptomatic, between spiritual white America and spiritual black America is partly due to the damaged condition of hip-hop culture, which is continuous with the damaged condition of America as a whole.  I do not mean for second to deny the humanity or subtlety or creativity of black artists.  What I have in mind is the complex relation that rappers have to the system that saddles them with poverty and hardship.  The near-universal narrative in rap is struggle against horrific conditions to achieve to material wealth.  Poverty is both the obstacle and the means to success; it hardens and equips them, usually painfully.  The ethos imparted is the awesome power of the almighty dollar.  If it does not make sense for a white man to inhabit black culture, this may be because there is less and less of an unsuppressed spirit there to be inhabited.

For a long time now the standard magazine-article line about rappers has been that they are actually beholden to the white middle class.  Their paychecks are signed by white teenagers in search of something exotic.  But a culture that is all about the money cannot be appropriated.  It is immune to the artistic depletion of popular success because the stated aim all along is to accumulate wealth.  In this sense, the kinship between rappers and prostitutes runs deep.  The image of the modern rapper is that of someone who, however conflicted, is fully plugged in to and on some level in love with the unjust capitalism that once oppressed him and now co-opts the art that he produces.  Success, for all that it is celebrated, becomes its own kind of tragedy.

From top to bottom, the conditions that inform rap are inherently humiliating, all the more so when juxtaposed with prosperity, yet the rapper achieves mastery over these conditions by surviving to tell about them.  Authenticity and street credibility are so important because, without them, you simply have other people’s humiliation.  Your history does not earn you the right to celebrate poverty and lust after wealth in the way of people who have been, in essence, forced into it.  And in our segregated country, you do not acquire that history without being black.

I think we are living in a cultural moment where it is increasingly hard for young people of all classes to fully identify with capitalist culture except in a roundabout way.  The youth of the nation are taught the defects of capitalism and yet have little hope and less opportunity of making any but marginal improvements.  The position of rappers—having fully paid for their greed morally and spiritually —is therefore an attractive one.  It explains in some measure why facile, conventional youth slip in and out of hip-hop idioms, and also why some more adventurous souls become wiggers.  But I find in wiggers, foolish though they may be, also a mad, full-speed attempt to upset some of the hardened racial divisions in this country.


Plastic surgery

October 27, 2010

In the land of excesses, plastic surgery is the queen.  It is biologically transformative and extremely expensive.  It is vain and jealous, feared and desired.  It symbolizes—gaudily—either the mad embrace of the artificial or, to its believers, the opening, once more, of a newly happy future.

The social logic of plastic surgery is scandal, the sex scandal in particular.  There is secrecy and physical intimacy and the violation of established norms.  There is, always, the implicit confession of a boredom sometimes deepening into hatred.  The most scandalous aspect of plastic surgery rests with the various delicious overtones, both positive and negative, that it holds for bystanders.  On one side is vicarious indulgence, on the other a pleasurable form of disgust, the anxious delight of seeing a familiar brought slightly lower and oneself thereby raised.  A difference is that with sex, the possibility of scandal is rarely the aim of the business.  It is not done (usually) to attract wide attention.  Plastic surgery by its very nature seeks attention, and whether that attention comes in the form of scorn or approval is often irrelevant—its power is confirmed either way.

For Hollywood celebrities, plastic surgery may as well be stage makeup, the grotesquerie needed to keep up appearances in front of a hundred random cameras.  But what about ordinary people who never go before that general audience?  It is a truism that many who seek plastic surgery have a distorted view of themselves.  Is this the result of not being able to see themselves as others see them?  Or is it rather that they never develop for themselves the generous, unguarded eye that can, at least in private, see their own flaws as dear?  I suspect that the psychology of plastic surgery arises when people see themselves always and only in the petty, impatient way that they see celebrities.  They can imagine only two roles, the mass and the idol, each the inverse of the other and each in need of the other.  So the only perspective from which they imagine themselves is that of an alternately adoring and punitive crowd.  We live increasingly in a world that forgets and devalues genuinely private spaces where one or two people might exist without thought of a third.  And in return we get far less than the luxury and privilege once granted to royalty.

Against nerds

May 18, 2010 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

To hear some tell it, no minority in the past half century has been so completely liberated as the nerd. Nerds have thoroughly colonized intellectual achievement. They are the inventors, the scientists, the policy experts, the analysts, and the respected academics. They are the main beneficiaries of two trends: the increasing technical complexity of the world at all its corners, and the leveling of barriers erected by race, class, and cronyism. The future is theirs.

But it’s a future we should fear, a highly segregated, spiritually barren future where there is no common ground, only collections of special interests, however intense, intelligent, and well-informed. It is a world of hobbyists.


Now the real issue here is nerdiness, of which being a nerd is simply a limiting case. You can be a nerd about X without being a nerd per se, without letting your nerdiness translate into full-blown social dysfunction.

Nerdiness is a form of intellectual engagement marked by obsessive interest in acquiring knowledge of a certain, highly specific kind. It could be almost anything at all. There are language nerds and music nerds and public policy nerds and baseball nerds. We needn’t confine our attention to the devotees of computer programming and science fiction. Nor should we, since the underlying phenomenon is much broader.

Nerdiness is now the dominant model of intellectual activity: to be an engaged, informed person, in anything whatsoever, is to have an inner nerd.  Some features of the nerd model:

1.  Nerds are pure, unconflicted, childlike in the best way. They aren’t in it for the money. Their only source of angst is having their obsessions interfered with. Taken in themselves, these passions are perfectly uncomplicated and self-sustaining. Anything Star Wars makes Star Wars nerds happy. Anything about cell biology makes cell biology nerds happy. Nerds just want to be left alone with their toys.

2.  Nerds delight in categorization, including self-categorization. They love arranging objects and information. This is also a way of defining themselves. Nerds take great pains to carefully demarcate their area of interest. They are responsible for everything within that territory—hence their obsession with completeness—while everything outside that territory belongs to someone else. This is the work of a nerd: / CC BY 2.0

3.  Nerds are highly social. They love games, conventions, and websites that allow them to connect with other nerds. They prize esoteric knowledge in large part as a status symbol. They enjoy punny jokes because they are less interested in humor than in signaling the depth of their interest: the logic is always “I am so into math that I enjoy otherwise worthless jokes simply because they are math jokes.”

4.  Nerds are consumers. Every nerd is also a fan who is highly ready to invest in the material accoutrements of his or her chosen obsession, often to the point where the accoutrements become an obsession unto themselves. Moreover, nerds are creative consumers. Their instinct for specialization creates new demographics and demand for new products.

(A Karl Marx puppet, for the philosophy nerd. via)


For all their gains, there is still something to the negative stereotype of the nerd as an awkward, isolated onanist. The world of the nerd is cozy, but self-limiting, narrow, fragmented, and sterile: a world of niches. Nerds are more interested in genre fiction than fiction itself, much less the things fiction is about. The nerd gives no serious thought to his obsessions, their larger meaning, value, or purpose. Each obsessive pleasure is its own justification, expressing nothing beyond itself. Where nerds are dominant, we all lose sight of breadth as anything other than polymorphous nerd-dom. Persons are—as the social networking sites already insist—just lists of atomic likes and interests. The idiosyncratic person is simply an idiosyncratic list. The well-rounded person occupies several niches simultaneously. There is no horizon of personality, just preferences strung together.


The rise of the nerd is also connected to the devaluation of art and artists as models of engagement with the world. The brief of the artist is essentially opposite to that of the nerd. The artist is concerned, in broad terms, to make the particular shine on the universal. He may focus on particular things, but his field of vision is unlimited. The nerd is interested only in the particular, and then only within a very narrow compass.

Art in this sense takes a certain kind of ambition, and courage, which tend to be met now with suspicion and mockery. (That this response is often the correct one only makes the situation worse, as does the fact that many artists have adopted a style of nerdy self-limitation.) Claims to beauty and ineffable truth ring hollow. We cannot help but think of artists as pretentious. If they are successful, they are charlatans, if unsuccessful, self-deluded. We have killed off the artist as a serious role model.

Knox Harrington, the video artist

It’s much easier to numb that part of us that thinks about larger meaning and conceive of our various life projects as expressions of mere taste. Let us agree, in essence, to think of our souls as tongues or genitalia: you get your meaning in life one way, I get mine in another, and they are both equally valid. There are no larger issues.

Some will rise to defend nerds. They will doublespeak: narrowness is breadth, limitation is freedom, the particular is the universal. If there is anything to this, it derives from the idea that bondage is freedom when it is freely, self-consciously undertaken. If there are such nerds, we should wish them well, but I doubt that there are. Nothing against nerds–has there really ever been such a free slave?

The only other defense of nerds is the sad, nihilistic, concessive one. That there really is no common ground, that it’s all hopelessly fragmented, that we can’t have genuine meaning or beauty or God or what have you so, fuck it, we may as well have all the action figures and conventions and fanzines and chat rooms we could ever want.

For the cure

May 13, 2010

At one time, people marched for their ideals. Where the streets are the main public forum, marching, more so than simply congregating, shuts down traffic and commerce over a wide area. It gives concrete human form to a moral agenda, especially a democratic one. Marches are, in a brutally simple way, a realization of democracy, the closest we come to seeing the people themselves, where political and moral authority are supposed to finally lie.

People no longer march. They walk or climb mountains or row across the Atlantic, all for charity, to raise money and awareness, of breast cancer or autism or childhood obesity. / CC BY 2.0

Here the whole point is not simply to be present but to perform some difficult, exhausting feat. By your suffering you earn funds and attention. It puts you somehow in sympathy with your bedridden aunt, or whomever. At the end of it all, you’re supposed to turn to the cameras and say, “that was hard, but it’s literally nothing compared to what obese children and their families go through every day.” You attract attention so that you can, at the final moment, deflect it; the real action, and the real heroes, are always elsewhere.

Whereas marches are inclusionary, walks are exclusionary, and sort of narcissistic. Your participation sets you apart, both from the victims you are helping and from the donors who have pegged their contributions to your efforts. If everyone walked, who would pledge money? Who would see your suffering and be moved to action?

On some level, the walkers and climbers and rowers are the main beneficiaries. Their self-serving actions get a larger meaning. They get an incentive to exercise or a reason to go on an adventure.

There is nothing wrong in principle with incentivizing altruism. But there are more issues than just right or wrong, namely: what kind of new psychology does this enterprise create?


Charitable awareness now supplies the primary model for patriotism. The troops are another cause, the cause. They are another group of victims suffering heroically. We honor them by performing the most self-regarding actions—shopping, watching professional sports, voting Republican—so long as we display appropriate colors. Nowadays displays of patriotism have less in common with fascist power-worship than with the self-sponsoring narcissism of modern charity.

Fisher and Consciousness

May 12, 2010

Here’s an interesting passage from R. A. Fisher, one of the great scientists of the 20th century:

The surface or limit separating the inner from the outer life of each living thing is also, in our experience, the true seat of our consciousness, the boundary of the objective and the subjective, where we experience, through our imperfect sense organs, what comes to us from the outside, and with at least equal obscurity, that which rises into consciousness from within. If consciousness is, as it would seem, the symbol, or even the means, of unification in our being, this is the region to which creative activity could most fitly be traced.

This is from “The Creative Aspects of Natural Law,” his Arthur Stanley Eddington Lecture from 1950 (PDF). He is responding to scientists and philosophers, Smuts and Bergson in particular, who imbue germ cells with minds of their own. They are shaped not just by ordinary cause and effect but by something creative or willful–a life force–that stands outside it. Fisher’s response is wise: why locate that creative element somewhere remote from our experience and not where we already know it to be, in consciousness itself? Why make germ cells and not organisms themselves the actors? Each act of an animal expresses its individual will. But there is no general will, no perfect form which each creature is trying to achieve, just a population of individual wills.

This still means, I suppose, that a full view of life requires looking at something more than ordinary cause-effect relationships. But it’s not as though this creative element is, for Fisher, something that stands alongside mechanistic causation. The world itself is thoroughly mechanistic. Consciousness is entwined with that world, but never a part of it. When Fisher talks about consciousness residing in ‘the surface or limit separating the inner from the outer life of each living thing’ he is, obviously, not saying that it is our skin or nerve endings or indeed any physical part of us that constitutes consciousness. Consciousness is not a thing in the world but something like its outer limit.


May 11, 2010

We should mend the rift between science and religion, but what’s the point? Better biology classes? More humane end-of-life care? A polite separation of powers, head from heart perhaps? Noble goals all, but science and religion are now both finished as ways that people actually introduce meaning into their lives. Why is the stitching together of two dead husks anything to get worked up about?

I can’t get excited about churches that posit the essential sameness of all world religions. It’s like doing arithmetic with all zeroes. In a similar way, I can’t get excited about the dry deism that purports to reconcile science and religion.

There are two kinds of reconciliation. The first is ceasefire, amicable separation, where the two sides simply need to tolerate each other, even where they cohabitate in a single mind. Each accepts a few limitations in return for a reciprocal guarantee. Boundaries are drawn; internal workings are left untouched.

But there is another, more ambitious kind of reconciliation which says that the internal problems of science and religion spring from the same source. This refuses to accept the impoverished materials, the dead husks, as given. They can be reinvigorated into more than just repositories of knowledge and comfort. They can be something else, appendages of life’s larger meaning. But this requires asking after meaning in a general way, neither scientific nor religious, but in the spirit that animates science and religion at their best, or once did.


Here’s one view, a common view, about how we make meaning in our lives. Each person is endowed with a certain store of existential energy which he or she is free to invest in different pursuits: collecting butterflies, genocide, knitting, raising children, etc. Returns vary, of course, and often unpredictably—art and science tend to be better bets than youtube watching and thumb twiddling, though—but there is a kind of common currency, the basic game is always the same. There’s nothing fundamentally incoherent about finding meaning in juggling or crossword puzzles so long as they are pursued wholeheartedly. Let a thousand eccentric flowers bloom. This is liberal society as an existential marketplace.

So yes, in this context science and religion are certainly sources of meaning. People still commit themselves. People still get things out of them. But the question is whether this is essentially different from the meaning people get from chess or square dancing. Is meaning in life ultimately something so bland and baseless—a mix of personal pleasure, good relationships, and a sense of contributing to the greater good—that it can be got, with varying success, from pretty much anything at all? Or is this another case where the marketplace produces distortion and alienation?


May 7, 2010 / CC BY-ND 2.0

Food has power over us—more than sex, in a way. Both are subject to strong appetites, but sex plays a more central role in human relationships. Sexual arousal essentially involves desire for another person. Food does not. This gives it a sort of naked, intrinsic power that sex lacks. In the end, it’s just you and the food in front of you. Many people give up eating meat precisely because it puts them alone–completely, intimately alone–with a dead animal. Explanations of vegetarianism miss something when they appeal solely to the consequences of eating meat, and not to the act itself.

Eating is not, but sex is, transactional. Is this part of why we sometimes feel that our sexual desires are not entirely our own? Misogynists hate the whore because they hold her responsible for their desires. If extreme, this nevertheless aligns with a general tendency to locate sexual desires outside oneself. Therapists treat sexual dysfunction as the result of trauma, of some interaction gone wrong. And we all habitually worry about what messages the media is sending about sex.

With food, it’s the reverse. Food is seen as a matter of sovereign individual choice. More precisely, eating is an ever more high stakes game and this brings out the fundamentally individual nature of the act of eating. Your food should be healthy, organic, local, sustainable, antibiotic-free. When this option is not easily within reach, you need to “vote with your fork” to make so. And when it is, you have only yourself to blame if you choose otherwise.

It is sometimes said that eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are less about staying thin than about maintaining control. If that’s true, it’s an odd, ascetic kind of control: the control of no control. The pressure to choose what to eat leads people to surrender to a regimen, which removes the possibility of choice completely. (Is this sort of like the surrender involved in addiction? People also talk about eating disorders as being like addictions.)

The food-conscious of all stripes talk not about what they choose to eat but about what they can and cannot eat. No one really talks in a similar way about the kinds of sex they can and cannot have.

Could there be a school of psychology that attached as much importance to gustatory pleasures and drives as Freud gave to sexual ones? True, Freud had us start off life in an oral stage, when our newborn lives revolved around the pleasure of suckling. But this is a stage of the libido, in which the mouth is a sort of sexual organ. Why not instead take the drive for food and flavor as the paradigm? Why not speak of the libido as quite literally hungry, as a displacement of the appetite?

Perhaps food was once more essentially social. Some people claim that we can fix what is broken with American food culture, with its emphasis on speed and convenience, by making meals back into the social rituals they once were. Partly, this is just the sentimental, community-worshipping view that says that the only real problem in society is our alienation from one another. There are certain aspects of eating that cannot be socialized. We die alone, and we eat alone too.

Why do religions so often impose restrictions on diet? According to pop anthropology, it’s for team-building: they give concrete form to the essentially abstract distinction between the faithful and everyone else. But why not say the same about religion itself, that it is just a way of separating us from them? Or why not think the reverse, that religion is to a large degree simply the abstract form of diet?

photo courtesy of Jonathunder under a Creative Commons license