Skip to content

Shadows of the future

May 5, 2010

What makes it possible for cooperation to emerge is the fact that players might meet again. This possibility means that the choices made today not only determine the outcome of this move, but can also influence the later choices of the players. The future can therefore cast a shadow back upon the present and therefore affect the current strategic situation.  –Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation

‘The shadow of the future’ is Robert Axelrod’s term to describe the rational shift from exploitative to cooperative behavior. When you have to deal with your neighbors every day, exploiting them now means opening yourself to retaliation later and forswearing the benefits of future, long-term cooperation. Not so, of course, when the game is a one-off, when the future is closed and there is no possibility of retaliation or cooperation. Then the rational, if contemptible thing to do is to carpe diem and to hell with everyone and everything else.

This is all equally true when what one has to either cooperate with or exploit is not another person or group but the natural environment in which one lives.


Monuments are shadows of the past. They honor the dead. Moreover, every monument will eventually be experienced as the work of people who are, at the time of experiencing, dead. Monuments connect the living not only with the dead and but with the ways that the dead have remembered the more distant dead. This is one way monuments can be a source comfort: they ensure that your act of remembrance will, in a small way, be remembered when you are dead.

Is it possible to have a monument to the future, something that casts its shadow? Would a monument dedicated to the future commemorate the future or merely its builders’ anticipation of the future? Would it be futuristic? (Nothing dates as quickly as futurism.) How do you commemorate something that hasn’t happened yet? How do you honor things and people which do not yet exist?

Imagine two walls facing each other at opposite ends of a reflecting pool, each dense with names. Names are continually taken off one wall and transferred to the other. One wall is for the past, the other for the future. This is obviously impossible in practice for several reasons.

Some people erect monuments to the unborn, but this is not the same as honoring future people. Pro-lifers honor the unborn precisely because they think that the unborn are not merely future people. They think they are already people. Still, is this part of the reason that the pro-life movement has such a hold on some people, that it can seem after a fashion like a way of honoring future people? / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A proper ‘monument’ to the future and to future people would, I suppose, have to be something self-renewing, organic, chaotic, and unplanned. For if it were designed, no matter how artfully, it would instantly become a reminder of the moment, soon to be passed, when it was conceived, completed, or dedicated. What is needed is something that, like the future, fundamentally escapes human intention.

photo available under a creative commons license

We have gone from seeing nature as divine to seeing it as an obstacle to be overcome to seeing it as property to be managed. The next step is to see it as an enshrinement of future people.



April 25, 2010

There is a fallacy—I think it’s a fallacy—according to which you make sense of the past by collating sufficiently many historical events end-to-end. If confusion persists, it indicates that the assembled record is incomplete. Dispute is always only over which events occurred in which order.

This is wrong. Events must be not just recounted but read. Not everything happens by conscious action. You can’t simply sum the proximate causes of each link in the chain. What this method misses are the long-range, low-frequency vibrations of the collective mind, powerful and often mistaken for silence and noise.

These are not ethereal. Like each of us’s daily mental weather, they shape and are shaped by an environment of concrete things: bodies, food, tools, images, buildings, weapons.

A President is greatly pressured to keep all the empire’s secrets. He feels he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this vast shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of commitments. He becomes the prisoner of his own power. As President Truman could not not use the Bomb, a modern President cannot not use his huge power base. It has all been given him as the legacy of Bomb Power, the thing that makes him not only Commander in Chief but Leader of the Free World. He is a self-entangling giant.

–Garry Wills, Bomb Power


The implicit, if not precisely explicit, narrative in Wills’s book is that the atomic bomb, supremely destructive, was also supremely sensitive—something to be defended at any cost from even the smallest threat. And infectiously so: if the bomb itself must be defended, then so must the people who build it, the troops that guard it, the bombers that carry it, the bases from which those bombers fly, the countries in which those bases lie and the foreign governments that host them. A threat anywhere is a threat everywhere, and any threat is an infinite threat. Security is digital: either 1 or 0; equivalently, either ∞ or 0.

The risks we face are of a new order of magnitude, commensurate with the total struggle in which we are engaged. For a free society there is never total victory, since freedom and democracy are never wholly attained, are always in the process of being attained. But defeat at the hands of the totalitarian is total defeat. These risks crowd in on us, in a shrinking world of polarized power, so as to give us no choice, ultimately, between meeting them effectively or being overcome by them.

–National Security Council Report 68

This is how Wills explains the concentration of power, after WWII, in the executive branch of the US government. The President, as Commander in Chief, controlled the bomb, so he could command any level of power and secrecy to protect it, and therefore any level of power and secrecy to defend that privilege. The Constitution itself could not interfere.

The existence of the bomb obliterated old distinctions, if mostly in our own psychology: war and peace, center and periphery, sensitive and insensitive. When you can’t distinguish vital interests from trivial ones, you’ll treat everything as maximally vital. You’ll invest yourself in the outward signs of vitality without regard to reality. The apparent power-hunger of the US executive may really be a sign of anxious disorientation.


Learned reactions may persist even after the initial stimulus has been removed. Ignorance might breed fear not just by preventing us from dispelling the claims of fearmongers but directly, as its natural outgrowth. Without something solid to grip we fall into paranoid fantasy as if by gravity.

The takeaway message of 9/11 seemed to be: anything at all is a weapon. / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Before, we knew what the weapons were and simply had to defend them. Now, the attack might come in any form, in any context. Most Muslims are not terrorists, but those that are will sport business casual like everyone else.


Here is one way to “invest yourself in the outward signs of vitality without regard to reality”:


The new Bomb—the new navel of our fear—is the terrorists’ ideology. We tell ourselves that terrorists do not succeed by arms alone. If anything is a weapon, it is only so in the hands of a dementedly inspired terrorist.

If what makes a terrorist dangerous is what is in his head, and if anything at all is a weapon in his hands, then you will deprive him of everything, even his senses.

On positive thinking

April 23, 2010 / CC BY-NC 2.0

“The world of the happy man is a different one from the world of the unhappy man.” –Wittgenstein

Positive thinking–the culture/industry of Oprah and The Secret and the prosperity megachurches and Get Motivated! seminars guaranteed to increase your income and productivity–is surely a cultural disease of one kind or another. Something, we know, has gone terribly wrong for so many of us to entrust ourselves to this hucksterish neo-shamanism. The moralistic response is to set one’s face against it and preach its opposite, which is hard-headed realism. But those seeking a scientific cure should look more closely into whether positive thinking can–or should–be so straightforwardly opposed.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America is a call to arms against positive thinking. Positive thinking, she says, makes us unrealistic and uncritical. It is an abdication of autonomous thought in favor of pseudo-science and cheap sentiment, an opiate for the consumerist masses that leaves no time for asking hard questions and owning up to hard truths. It makes us vulnerable to con men selling their secrets to success and to CEOs and politicians who prefer people not trouble themselves with ‘negative’ thoughts about injustice, war, and financial collapse. George W. Bush: brutal optimist.

Positive thinking has a weirdly compelling, self-reinforcing logic. Want a fulfilled life for yourself, professional success, happy family, comfortable house, etc.? The best way to get there, it says, is to feel good now, no matter your other miseries. As if by a law of the universe, good things follow pleasant feelings, bad things follow unpleasant feelings. The best way to give yourself pleasant feelings is to force yourself to think thoughts that make you feel good. Of course, one of those thoughts is precisely this: ‘by feeling good now, I will achieve my goals later.’ This is magical thinking in the service of hedonism and materialism.

It’s easy to beat up on this sort of thing. Obviously: thoughts exert no quasi-magnetic force on material reality. Obviously: there is such a thing as blind optimism. Obviously: there is more to life than wealth and productivity.

It’s even easier to beat up on the Tony Robbins’s and the Joel Osteens and the Deepak Chopras, the utter kitsch of it all.

But this is just inflamed wheel-spinning. Sort of like the New Atheism of people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, it refuses to address its opponent in open ground. It considers only the silliest, shallowest, most crass forms of positive thinking, only its most glaring weaknesses, and only its most ludicrous practitioners. More broadly, when we talk about ideas, we need to able to separate an idea and its implementation. The mere fact that an idea has been used, viciously, to immiserate people does not show for a second that it’s not true. The conviction that good ideas are always put to good use is itself a bit of unfounded optimism.

Take the case of religion, where we can have two debates. We can talk about the practices of the people who carry the banner of religion. We will then talk about the crusades and jihad and papal indulgences and the subjugation of women, along with the good works of religious charities. When we debate ‘God’ we will be debating how far to endorse these practices. Alternatively, we can address the truth of religion directly, as something that the practice of religionists may reflect only dimly or not at all. This is the harder but immeasurably more important of the two.

Analogously, we can talk about the good and bad practices of the positive thinking industry or we can set that aside and try to talk about what truth, if any, there is in the idea of positive thinking. The task is not to validate positive thinking, but to separate as far as possible, what is true in it from what is merely a mental analgesic. Ehrenreich ignores this task.

She says at the outset that by ‘positive thinking’ she is explicitly not talking about deeper things like hope and ‘existential courage.’ She means something shallow, like forced sunniness. But what if forced sunniness is, at least sometimes, a necessary step on the way to hope? What if it’s possible to break through and come back around to a point where sunny affirmations are invested with a higher meaning? What if the deepest existential courage is sometimes held up by the most ungraceful, nonsensical talk about self-actualization?

This is supposed to be how AA works, even for skeptics. Beyond all belief, going through the ritual motions eventually delivers what those 12 steps gesture at so clumsily.

The closest Ehrenreich gets to the inner life of a positive thinker is this dispiriting encounter:

In 2007, I got to know Sue Goodhart, a realtor who was showing me houses, and I happened to mention that I was doing some research on motivational speakers. She smiled ruefully and gestured toward the backseat of her car, which I saw was piled high with motivational CDs. When I teased her for being ‘a motivation junkie,’ she told me that she’d come from a working class background and had never been encouraged to set high goals for herself. Then, at some point in the 1990s, her agency brought in a motivational firm called the Pacific Institute, which provided a five-day session on ‘goal-setting, positive thinking, visualization, and getting out of your comfort zone,’ and she began to think of herself as a self-determining individual and potential success. But that first exposure was hardly enough. She continues to listen to motivational CDs in her car from house to house, both because ‘sales is a lonely business’ and because the CDs help her get ‘to the next level.’

For Ehrenreich, this is simply an illustration of the economics of positive thinking, in which businesses dangle visions of wealth to motivate other businesses’ beleaguered employees. All true, but it keeps Ehrenreich from asking whether there are other dimensions as well. The quoted phrases in the last sentence are offered as if as proof that the only forces at work are economic. The use of ‘ruefully’ to describe Sue smiling is also odd. ‘Rueful’ can either mean pitiable or regretful. Does Sue realize, on some level, how she’s been tricked by the whole system? Or is her smile sincere and a sign of how deeply she has been tricked? Either way, it leaves out a third possibility, which is consistent with the exploitative nature of positive thinking: that it is not just a necessary expedient but an important source of meaning in Sue’s life.

going to the wall: birthdays on facebook

April 22, 2010 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Some people treat new technologies like they would alien invaders. When some new thing appears, they need to find out whether it is to be welcomed or, alternatively, resisted. They want to know whether it is hostile or whether it comes in peace. I tend to think of new technologies more like clothes. However they look on the rack, some things are just really unflattering to your fat once you put them on.

Take this—there is practice on facebook of wishing one’s friends happy birthday by writing a short, public message on their ‘wall’, where it can be seen by all their other friends in a chronological list along with all the other birthday greetings. And facebook, by the way, gives you automated advance warning of upcoming birthdays, which means you tend to ‘remember’ lots of them and lots of people tend to  ‘remember’ yours. By far the most common message is something simple like a plain old ‘Happy Birthday!’. Others are more personalized, but never anything more than a few playful, exclamatory sentences, joshing puffery like you might write in an old-fashioned paper greeting card, and even that is pretty rare. Instead, what you get is a lot people pressed into a tight corner. On the one hand, they need to write something that captures their totally individual wit and panache. On the other hand, they can’t go into too much detail: realistically, we’re talking less than ten words. And this is all the harder because all the birthday wishee’s other friends, many of whom are also your friends, will be able to see the message for digitally archived perpetuity and because, as the wall rapidly fills with birthday wishes, many of the succinct yet pleasantly unorthodox and utterly original ways you thought up to say something as banal and well-meaning as ‘happy birthday, Kelly!’ have already been used up.

To be helpful, here is a list of things you can try if you get stuck. Just remember to check the wall to see if these have already been used. If that happens, you can always try combining one or more of these techniques. Be creative!

  1. Use lots of exclamation points. Ex.: ‘Happy Birthday!!!!!!!!!!!!!’
  2. Append nicknames, titles, diminutives, epithets, etc. Ex.: ‘Happy birthday, big shooter’
  3. Capitalize, creatively if necessary. Ex.: ‘hapPY BirtHDaY’
  4. Misspell, creatively if possible. Ex.: ‘Haapi britdayyyyyyyyyyy’
  5. Permute the words, even to the point of ungrammaticalness. Ex.: ‘to you a happy birthday’
  6. Say it in another language. Ex.: ‘per molts anys’
  7. Abbreviate. Ex.: ‘H. b-day’, ‘H. birth-d’, ‘H. bd’, etc.
  8. Use emoticons. Start with ‘:)’ and work up.
  9. Write in dialect. Ex. ‘ ‘ello guvna, ‘appy birfday, innit?’ or ‘O hai! U can haz birfday?’
  10. Repetition. Self-explanatory.

I kid. Every birthday wall-message I’ve ever received was a kindness, and surprisingly touching. Still, I’ve instructed facebook not to give notice of my birthday to even my closest friends.

Ehrenreich and empathy

April 17, 2010 / CC BY 2.0

The salient fact about Barbara Ehrenreich is that she is a radical. By this I don’t mean that she holds extreme positions, though that may be true for the sake of my present point. Nor do I mean, simply, that she is a woman of conviction. I mean something subtly different, that she prosecutes her views without ever stepping outside herself. She’ll walk, quite literally, in your shoes but no further, never making the leap of imagination necessary to get inside your bones, your mind, your experience. No matter what, it’s always her in those shoes.

Ehrenreich is perhaps most famous for going undercover, first among the working poor in Nickel and Dimed and then among the unemployed middle class in Bait and Switch. For Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich spent a year working around the country as a waitress, a maid, and a sales “associate”. For Bait and Switch, she threw herself to the white-collar job market, seeing employment coaches, sending out resumes, and going to networking sessions. She’s adventurous, and she’s certainly done more than most to try to understand the plight of others firsthand. But these books are basically personal journals devoted to logging the minutiae of Ehrenreich’s struggles as one of the (ersatz) downtrodden. She aims to understand the poor by understanding her own experience donning the mask of poverty.

This self-attention serves her larger goals. The first is to disprove, in a kind of controlled experiment, that piety of the well-off according to which the hard-up are simply lazy or foolish. If an exceptionally savvy and driven person like Ehrenreich can’t make it, who can? The second goal, the one left mostly implicit, is to show that the experience of economic hardship in the USA is a seriously unpleasant proposition. In America poverty, let alone middle class unemployment, is not manifestly outrageous in the way that, say, the slums of Mumbai are manifestly outrageous, a moral emergency. In absolute terms, the worst off in America are still far better off than tens of millions in the Third World. This helps explain the widening gap between rich and poor in America: the poor among us, who eat fast food and drive cars and receive welfare and subsidized housing, no longer strike those in power as genuinely, desperately poor. Their situation does not register as urgent.

The righteous thing, then, is to make vivid their suffering and the suffering of the unemployed, so that we may better feel its true weight. I have no doubt that Ehrenreich contributes meaningfully to this effort. My criticism is that she does so in a crude, limited, and limiting way. This may be good enough to make her political point—the self-satisfied indifference she wants to eradicate is itself crude–but it distorts the lives of the poor even as it serves their political interests. In effect, Ehrenreich proposes a trade: she will bring her literate, upper middle-class readers into sympathy with the poor, but by pushing their inner lives further out of reach, by showing their lives to be horrifyingly alien.

The problem, as I see it, is that Ehrenreich has too much incentive not to empathize too deeply with those around her. As I say, she is out to show us as close to firsthand as possible the misery of the poor. And admirably so, but in practice this means that every distasteful, frustrating, or annoying aspect of her experience becomes a data point in support of her thesis. The result, in turn, is that she has little occasion to give her reactions a second thought, to separate warranted discontent from mere petulance, or to ask whether the whole experience might have other dimensions for other people. Of course, there is little point in doing this for things like the deadening exhaustion of working a double shift. But not when it comes to things that simply strike her as inane, dull, or pathetic, insults to the intelligence: things like silly training videos, vacuous management-speak, company cheers, the sunny platitudes of her evangelical co-workers and the resigned obedience of the others. Do these signal existential impoverishment? They very well may, but it’s impossible to know the precise degree and texture of that impoverishment when your reaction never moves beyond simply being appalled.

Ehrenreich is appalled, often with apparent relish, by downmarket religiosity:

[W]hat is a person of limited means and no taste for carousing to do [on Saturday night]? Several times during the week, I have driven past the ‘Deliverance’ church downtown, and the name alone exerts a scary attraction. Could there really be a whole congregation of people who have never heard of the James Dickey novel and subsequent movie? Or, worse yet, is this brand of Christians thoroughly familiar with that story of homosexual rape in the woods?

By unfortunate fashion:

Standing at the fitting rooms and facing toward the main store entrance, we are looking directly at the tentlike, utilitarian plus sizes, also known as ‘woman’ sizes. These are flanked on the left by our dressiest and costliest line (going up to $29 and change), the all-polyester Kathie Lee collection, suitable for dates and sub-professional levels of office work. Moving clockwise, we encounter the determinedly sexless Russ and Bobbie Brooks lines, seemingly aimed at pudgy fourth-grade teachers with important barbecues to attend.

And by the kitschy enthusiasm of her job-coach:

Kimberly, when our first session rolls around, is ‘excited’ by my résumé, ‘excited’ by my fantasy, and generally ‘excited’ to be working with me. … Already the excitement level is beginning to exhaust me. In my irritation, I picture her as a short-haired platinum blonde, probably wearing a holiday-themed sweater and looking out from her ranch home on a lawn full of reindeer or gnomes.

One of Ehrenreich’s persistent themes is that in late-stage American capitalism—the kind of economy built more around marketing and fast food than mining and manufacturing—management doesn’t so much coerce its workers as get them, in effect, to coerce themselves. Workers, white-collar included, are so manipulated that they don’t even see how their beliefs and preferences have been sculpted to serve others’ economic interests. There is much truth in this. But it also erects a barrier even, perhaps especially, for those in sympathy with the poor. For if their inner lives have already been decimated by late-stage capitalism and reduced to a set corporate clichés, then the only task that remains is to pity them and catalogue the damage. There is not much point in looking into the deeper meaning of their lives—they are already the walking dead. This is compassion without empathy–better, I suppose, than empathy without compassion but still in its own way a tragedy of alienation and class division.

For interpretation

April 13, 2010

If Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” can be summed up by two of its sentences, it’s probably these:

Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.

The writ against interpretation, then, is that it is occlusion. It interposes between artwork and audience something external, superfluous, and inhibitory—the ‘meaning’ of the work. It summons ideas to clog the channels of real aesthetic awareness, reducing art to allegory. Everything becomes something else, usually big and shadowy: the protagonist is not a man but Man, the whale is God, the watch is the Inexorable March of Time. Interpretation will not let things—characters, images, canvasses—simply be what they are.

But fortunately lost things, Sontag thinks, can be recovered by setting aside their content, their ‘meaning’, and focusing on their form. We need to go back to what in art is most essentially and immediately felt. We need to appreciate the surface rather than plumb false depths, as it were. Certain genres of art can help us do this. They resist interpretation, as if of their own volition. Pop art and parody have ‘blatant’, familiar, often banal content while abstract and decorative art lack recognizable content entirely. Such art is all surface.

From a certain angle, Sontag’s argument has an anti-intellectual cast. Interpretation is the special task of the intellect, and interpretation is occlusion. The intellect cannot be dispensed with, but it can be demoted, and it should not be our primary conduit of aesthetic experience. We need, in Sontag’s vivid phrase, an ‘erotics’ of art, a bypassing of the intellect.

But, strictly speaking, this anti-intellectualism is an illusion. The essay contains no argument against the frontline use of the intellect in the experience of art. Or rather, any argument to this effect depends on an equivocation between two distinct senses of ‘interpretation’: interpretation as the application of intellect to artwork and interpretation as excessive intellection, as intellect untethered. The latter is to be avoided, and it’s the sense that Sontag has primarily in mind. But for all that she says, there is no reason to deny that seeing things as they are sometimes requires that we use the intellect to peer below the surface, however fallibly. Sometimes–for colors, figures, sounds, etc.—the intellect just gets in the way (and Sontag’s essay works as a bluntly effective reminder of this). But for other things–for characters, narratives, and meanings, and there are meanings attached to things just as inextricably as colors and textures—we would be at least half-blind without it.

Remembering the Confederacy

April 12, 2010

(photo courtesy of Andrew Bain)

As you know, the governor of Virginia recently tried to dedicate April to the remembrance of the Confederate States of America. His original proclamation—since amended—made no mention of slavery. Perhaps the idea was ‘separate but equal’: February, being Black History Month, is for the slaves, April for their masters.

Of course, this horribly misrepresents the Civil War. It gives the demonstrably wrong answers to the questions “Was or was not the Confederacy inextricably tied to white supremacy? Can or cannot the history of the Confederacy be contemplated apart from slavery?”

At the same time, though, the real issues are elsewhere. They are less about the Civil war as a body of historical facts than they are about the Civil War as a symbol. They cannot be settled by airing the historical record. We need to rethink what that record means to us.

The Confederacy has come to stand for nothing more than a certain political agenda, namely the defense of white privilege at every turn. Neo-Confederates embrace it because it stands for racial inequality, and the mainstream of America rejects it for the very same reason. History becomes politicized and one-dimensional. This isn’t necessarily unfair to the historical Confederacy, but it is unfortunate. Quite apart from what it says about the state of race relations in this country, it keeps us from coming to any deeper understanding of our history. The subtler questions get drowned out by those shouting “White privilege: yes or no?”

“No”, of course. But there has to be a way grasping the meaning of Confederate treason that is neither sentimental nor reductive. The Confederacy was racist to the core, a bastion of misery and injustice, a stain on our national cloth. But even if this is its most salient aspect, it’s still only one aspect. We need to get a wider view, but certainly not by layering on the gauzy fantasy according to which the antebellum south was the more beautiful, spirited, principled, and individualistic America.

Profiting from slave labor is, I’m sorry to say, a large part of the heritage of a large number of our fellow citizens. It was, for many, the family business, a way in the world. That it was morally corrupt doesn’t change this–this is simply the flipside of slavery as the heritage of black Americans: you can’t recognize the one and not the other. But it does makes it harder to live with. You can accept or reject the politics of your forebears, but your forebears are not themselves a political agenda which you can either accept or reject.

On some level, the other atrocities of recent history—the genocidal campaigns of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, mass murder under Stalin and Mao, the American war in Vietnam—are more episodic and hence easier to criminalize, contain, and repudiate. It is easier to treat them as brutal but aberrant periods of civilizational insanity. American chattel slavery was as bad as anything but far more a part of everyday life for a far longer time. For this reason, it may be far longer before we put it behind us.

The phantasmagoria of war

April 4, 2010

On the magazine racks of konbinis, i.e. Japanese convenience stores, you’ll sometimes find, next to the pornography, little books cataloguing the more grand, outlandish, and fantastical weapons of past and present wars:

(click images for wikipedia links)

With respect to the juxtaposition of war machines with schoolgirls’ carefully proffered torsos, it’s not just that the objects of puerile fantasy should be grouped together for easy consumption. There is also a kind of romance to old weapons, a romance laid of course over something much darker. Many of these weapons are almost something that a daydreaming child would imagine, and not an evil child: ill-will has nothing to do with it. It’s the amusing, ridiculous, ambitious machines themselves that excite, not their successful operation. Set aside real-world consequences, the things that make real war irredeemable: the stupidity and callousness behind war-making and the misery it creates. War on some level still promises limitless invention.

This is less true today. The weapons of even the recent past were by and large mechanical and organic. They clanked along on grease and gears, snorted by on muscle and hay. Now our weapons are nuclear and digital. They are sleek, stealth, and completely handleless—literal and figurative black boxes. Scarcely the only work for fantasy now is dull and terrifying:  imagining mushroom clouds, more and bigger.

My bad

April 4, 2010

Seriously, sorry for the long, unannounced hiatus. Blame some of it on travel and other distractions. But I’m back to regular posting and I’ll try extra-hard not to waste your pageviews.

The function of mental illness

March 2, 2010

In the final tally, it’s easier to understand the physiology of disease than it is to arrive at a clear-eyed view of what disease means. This is all the more true of mental diseases, where the symptoms are less overt and often less clear-cut, and hence where the promise of imposing order through a physiology of the mind is all the more seductive. We strive to give mental illness a meaning by giving it a biological meaning, by showing that it has some adaptive function. Oftentimes this is an attempt to see behind one’s illness the workings of a higher power: you treat excessive melancholy as a kind of finely-tuned sensory power–the fact that you are so sad is supposed to tell you something about your larger situation, for example that you have some pressing problem you need to withdraw from the world in order to analyze. This may well be true, but even if it is what does it mean? It can perhaps interrupt a spiral of self-loathing where the depressed feels even worse for being on top of it all a malfunctioning member of the species. But this isn’t really to give depression a meaning. At most it clears away one of the illusory meanings, spiritual-cum-biological pollution, that has historically been attached to it. Whether excessive melancholy is good or bad is not settled by biology. We could recognize its burdens even when our science was still primitive. Similarly, the ultimate accounting of the costs and benefits of melancholy in its more moderate forms cannot be reckoned in biological terms.