Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Extreme Commodification

When philosophers talk about the extensions of markets into new domains like surrogacy and sex work, one of the concepts they use is "commodification." The idea is that by subjecting things like reproduction and sexuality to market norms, we are "commodifying" them: valuing them in the wrong sort of way.

I don't know if that's the right way to think about these issues, but this post isn't about that. This post is about commodities themselves, and about whether it's possible to commodify them. More broadly: can you apply market norms inappropriately even to things to that are normally subject to market forces?

I think the answer is yes. In fact, the last time I was reading about commodification as a concept, I got to thinking that in some ways it's because of the way we've gotten so extreme about commodification itself that to "commodify" something feels like such an utter disaster. 

When we talk about "market norms" in the context of commodification, it's something like the following: you think about how to get the best thing for yourself at the least cost to yourself; you think about what exact qualities you want instead of taking an open-ended and unconditional approach; you think "instrumentally" in terms of using the commodity just for purposes of your own.

But with respect to these norms, there's commodifying and there's commodifying. Because it depends on how far you take it -- that is, it depends on whether you also value in other ways or whether you see commodities purely in the conditional and instrumental way. Increasingly, with commodities, I think we're taking it all the way -- and everything else goes out the window.

Take labor as an example. Sure, from one point of view, any capitalist system will inappropriately "commodify" labor -- but setting that to one side, you can see the different ways that the labor-wage situations appeal to market norms.

Paying someone to do something doesn't require you to take up a purely commodified view of them. You could pay them to do something, but also regard them as a fellow citizen with needs and interests of their own. You could think about an appropriate wage in terms of fairness and not just cost-benefit-analysis. You could think of making exchanges of mutual benefit.

But it feels like our rhetoric and practice around labor has gotten so far away from this, to a place where labor isn't just commodified, it's completely and utterly commodified. For example, the increasingly common "just-in-time" scheduling in service jobs means you never know from week to week when you're working, or how many hours. You can't arrange child care, you can't go to school, and you can't keep a second job. It destroys your life.

And it's not just poor people. This article reports on doctors who were trying to negotiate for quality of  life issues, to avoid burn-out, and couldn't even communicate with their managers, who thought that the only question on the table was "How much are you asking for?" The doctors could not even communicate that there was something else at stake other than dollar amounts.

Similarly, employers don't want to hire normal people with general good attributes then train them -- they want workers who already have the exact specific skills they are looking for. As this Washington Post piece says, this means no one can get the relevant experience: it's not a "skills gap" as much as a refusal to do any of the giving in the give-and take.

Maybe it's not all that surprising that labor is increasingly commodified, but I think there's actually something weirdly similar happening at the level of literal commodities -- the objects we buy as part of the consumer culture saturation society we're all part of.

Because of the way everything has become temporary and disposable, it's no longer necessary to relate to an object by getting attached to it, caring for it, or taking the bad with the good. The commodification of commodities means that any object is just seen for its potential to suit just the specific ends we have -- until it doesn't. I remember last time I went to get eyeglasses, and there was something about the frames that didn't seem perfect, and my friend said, "Don't worry about it. Just get these, and then next year you can get some new ones." And that's what I did.

It's really very speculative, but I got to wondering: is it possible that the fear of "commodification" in debates over surrogacy and sex work has something to do with the specific way that commodification has become such a crazy all or nothing thing in our society?

Because if a "commodity" is a thing or person you'll squeeze everything out of and then throw away at the first sign of dissatisfaction --- well, yeah, for heaven's sake, don't commodify.

But doesn't it seem possible that it doesn't have to be that way? That you could have a market that co-exists with normal human emotions like care and respect? That you could pay someone to do something and also, at the same time, care about them as a person? 

I don't know when it happened -- and I don't think blaming individuals makes any sense -- but somehow we seem to have systematically made this less extreme state of affairs an impossibility for ourselves.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Do I Like Trouble?

Charlottesville, downtown.
I was recently visiting a Nice Place in America -- in this case Charlottesville, VA. Charlottesville is nice. It's pretty, and quiet, and prosperous, and the day I visited the sun was shining brightly.

To be honest the niceness of Charlottesville gave me kind of a funny feeling, a feeling I've had in other nice places. Kind of a disturbed feeling, a feeling that the niceness of the place was somehow a problem. What is that?

For me, part of that feeling might have to do with the quietness. I know myself well enough to know that the activity and life of a big city are life-giving to me: riding crowded subway trains, stumbling on surprise protests, checking out the fashion trends of other humans, seeing groups of people celebrating holidays I didn't even know existed -- these all give me The Life Force. By comparison, a place like Charlottesville seems a little like quiet prosperous streets with a few quiet prosperous cars and a few quiet prosperous people in them.

But I think the feeling goes beyond busy versus quiet, and this is where things get confusing. There's something about the niceness itself -- about the lack of trouble -- that gives me pause. What's the deal with all these shiny happy people? What's with everything being clean and tidy? What's with all this gentle sunshine?

What does it mean about me that I'm even asking these questions? Do I like trouble? If I do, is that some kind of problem? I mean, what kind of person likes unhappiness, ramshackleness, dirt, and inclement weather?

There is, I think, one sense in which it's not really "liking trouble" but rather knowing trouble is out there and thinking it's being sneakily hidden. If you spend time thinking about the awful situation of most people in the world and most people the US, the niceness of a place can feel like a lie: like you're just seeing some veneer of niceness over some reality of decay. Of course anyone is going to feel creepy and weird about that.

But honestly compels me to say that I think for me there is somewhat more to it, to say that that yes, there is a sense in which I just like trouble. Because when I picture an entire world of clean and peaceful streets, and freshly washed storefronts, and prosperous people with on their way to yoga class followed by organic salad -- well, the picture makes me a little tense. Maybe it's just the non-urban quality of that mental picture that gets me. But maybe it's not: when I picture a gleaming city with teleporters and no smoking and 70-degree weather and endless pleasant recreation -- that also makes me feel weird.

I think that for me, part of the weirdness of those mental pictures has to do with the frictionlessness quality they evoke -- because I think there is some sense in which the struggles and frictions of life are good for me. The struggles and frictions of life -- you have to gear up for them, confront them, make your way through them. They press up against you. And while I'm doing those things, I have a moment of respite from the existential drama -- or existential annoyingness -- of being human, living in my own skin, and thinking "hm, what is the point of all this anyway?"

If, like me, you have the problem of tending toward too much inner reflection, and if that inner reflection can be dangerous to your well-being -- then yes, maybe you're going to like a little trouble.

I have occasionally wondered if a liking for trouble is a moral problem. If you're saying the world would be better with trouble in it than without -- wouldn't that be a bad and wrong thing to say?

But I'm not too concerned about it. For one thing, a liking of of a bit of trouble probably helps me do some good things, like take the bus. But more importantly, it's not like we're in danger of creating a world with too little trouble. Actually it's the opposite: the real problem is that we're making a world in which rich people can push trouble away and out of sight, where they don't have to deal with it. In that context? A liking for trouble is probably an OK thing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ego Depletion Theory And Its Cultural Context

When I first learned about it, I really liked the theory of ego depletion. You know this theory, right? The idea is that you only have a certain amount of willpower. If you use a lot of willpower keeping yourself away from cookies, you'll run out, and you won't have enough left over to make yourself do other things you don't want to do or refrain from things you want to stop doing. In one classic study, people who had to ignore cookies to eat radishes then spent less time later working on math puzzles.

I liked the theory for two reasons. First, it corresponds loosely to my experience as a human. If I have to do something difficult, I know to do it in the morning, or at least when I'm rested and well-fed. Too many difficult decisions and I get bad at making difficult decisions. Self-control really does feel like something you move around from thing to thing: quit smoking, and your drinking goes up; grade more papers and you eat more cookies; go to the gym more and you spend more on cute gym clothes.

Second, I appreciate the goofy metaphor associated with the theory, that "the active self is a limited resource." I don't think my "will" is "me," but this is a mildly amusing thing to say. "Uh-oh! I made myself tidy up, and now -- I'm going to run out of myself."

But I also had immediate doubts about the whole framework for the theory. It's never seemed right to me to say that "willpower" is the central issue. Why not just say that making yourself do things you don't want to do makes you feel harassed and annoyed, and when you're harassed and annoyed you're like, "Fuck it, who cares?" Why not talk about moods? Why not talk about the life force? The whole "willpower" part of it -- why did that have to be in there at all?

I also have to question the intuitive plausibility of the part of the theory that says that willpower, like a muscle, can be strengthened through practice. The idea here is that if you use your willpower to make yourself do things, you get better at using your willpower to make yourself do things.

In one sense, I get how this seems true: there's a way in which getting your life together and developing regular habits makes you more able to get your life together and develop regular habits. But there's a deeper sense in which this seems wildly false. Whether you continue getting your life together or whether it all comes crashing down in a nightmare of chaos seems to have nothing to do with built up willpower and everything to do with your immediate environment and the other things going on in your life.

Just as the theory of ego depletion was on the verge of becoming firmly entrenched in psychology, doubts have arisen. According to this recent article in Slate, other scientists have had trouble replicating the results of the original experiments. Various kinds of problems and difficulties have been pointed out, including the possibility that someone's "beliefs and mindset" could affect their willpower.

The Slate article puts the whole episode in the context of the "reproducibility crisis" happening in psychology. I don't know a lot about this crisis, but I have to say that would not be surprising to me to learn that many of the basic ideas in psychology are unstable or off the mark in other ways. I mean, people are complicated, and the way we experience and talk about things is highly influenced by complex social and cultural factors. These factors are embedded in a way of seeing the world. It's hardly surprising to think that the effects we see in experiments are produced by complex things working together, and that we only have the loosest grasp of what is going on, so that tiny changes in the set up bring about large changes in results.

I mean, from the philosophical point of view, even the concept of willpower is contested. Sure, you can say that a person who judges X best and does Y had a failure of willpower. Or you can say, neo-Socratically, that the person who does Y must have regarded Y as the thing to do, and so they were mistaken in thinking X best -- then "willpower" wouldn't refer to anything. You could describe any of the experiments this second way. Maybe the person who eats more cookies sees the cookies in a different light, and so eats them. Maybe the person who works less hard on the math puzzles sees the puzzles as more pointless and dull than they did before.

Then it wouldn't be a failure of willpower, but rather a halo cookie effect, or a this-is-boring effect. If the relevant behavior can be described using a range of different concepts that don't even appeal to "willpower," it's not surprising that when you tweak the study design things get complicated.

Where all of this matters most, of course, is in the way that laying our conceptual understanding onto a set of behaviors, seeing a pattern, and thinking we've got hold of "reality" leads into very dangerous territory. As the Slate article explains, the ego depletion theory supports all kinds of ideas about "grit" and building "resilience" that support very specific ideologies -- the kind of ideologies that get you a million dollars in funding from the Templeton Foundation.

If you think about it for even a minute, you can see how alternative frameworks for the behavior pattern in question lead in different directions. If it's all about how hard it is to do things when you're harassed and annoyed, and not about willpower -- well, there's nothing more harassing and annoying than poverty, and there's nothing that building up resilience and grit is going to do about that.

Nothing drives me crazy like seeing comfortable middle class people criticize poor people for choosing to eat fast food or buy expensive sneakers or whatever. In addition to the obvious fact that everyone has their pleasures, so please fuck off, there's also the fact that if you haven't been poor, you don't know how constantly harassing and annoying it is. Sometimes, it's so harassing and annoying you can't make yourself do anything. Yes, it might be the same mechanisms that make it hard to do math puzzles after not eating cookies. But it also might have nothing to do with willpower at all.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

My Midlife Music Crisis

I love music. There are ways in which music is one of my favorite things, maybe my most favorite thing. And yet, at this point in my life, I seldom listen to music. So: WTF?

Part of the problem is pretty basic and really boils down to: what am I going to listen to? Like a lot of white Gen-Xers, I spent my youth listening to things like Iggy Pop, The Clash, The Velvet Underground, Nirvana, with doses of The Cure and Blondie for lighter side.

There's a sense in which I never stopped loving music like that. But it presents a problem, which is, how does it fit into my life? So much of a certain kind of popular music puts me in a certain mood -- a mood almost incompatible with the life I live now. At this point, when is the right moment for getting all wound up with aggressive, sexual, and possibly destructive behavior? Answer: never.

A lot of people my age transition into other things. They develop a new interest in Latin jazz, or classic R&B, or whatever. Abstractly this seems like the ideal solution. But for various reasons it's not happening for me.

One of those reasons has to do with something I think of as "music start-up costs" -- something that is huge for me but that I almost never hear people talking about. The idea of music start-up costs is that for me, listening to new music is hugely different from listening to familiar music. And it's not just different -- it's difficult.

Listening to new music, even when I like it, and actively want to listen to it, often feels to me really, really challenging. It's something I have to make a plan about, something I don't want to do at the end of long day doing other cognitively challenging things, something that uses up active willpower and is not at all a form of relaxation.

Is this something particular about me? That I can't enjoy music without entering into it, that I can't enter into it if I can't understand it, that I can't understand it on the first few listens? Or is this one of those things everyone experiences but just doesn't talk about because it doesn't seem cool?

Right now I have a ton of music on my iPhone that I want to listen to but haven't and maybe won't. Frank Ocean. Kendrick Lamar. The new MIA album Matangi. Watch the Throne. Zebra Katz. An album of old remastered Scott Joplin songs. People told me to listen to Formation -- I want to, but I haven't.

All of this music is probably great, and all of it is music that if I'd heard it a few times without realizing it -- so my subconscious could process it without me -- I'd probably be all into it. It's all music I want to listen to, but because of the start-up costs, it isn't happening.

In one sense, I expect that having this kind of midlife music crisis is a pretty common and universal sort of thing -- I mean, there's a reason that when we picture middle-aged people we picture people driving around playing whatever they danced to in high school.

In another sense, though, I feel like my experience tells us something interesting about life in 2016 North America. Because the obvious thing that's missing, the thing that would solve my problem, is just hearing music without having to go out of my way to listen to it.

And there is something about the modern media landscape, where you can pick and choose exactly what you want and everyone has their own micro-obsession, that seems to decrease this sense of things just being in the atmosphere. Don't get me wrong: I love the modern media landscape. I love the way if your thing is some tiny thing that no one else likes you can get all into it all by yourself. But -- still, I think it does have this negative effect. I mean, it's different from the old days where you'd turn your alarm clock to KROQ and you'd hear whatever everyone else was hearing.

Actually, one of the few music experiences I am still able to get really into is opera. One reason, I think, is that once you're at an opera, not only are you a captive audience, but the structure of the music itself is a clever mix of the familiar and the new. Each bit of music is new, but the underlying themes are always there.

After I saw Verdi's Rigoletto for the first time, I couldn't stop thinking about "La donna è mobile." (Yes, this literally translates as "women are fickle," but if you think that's what it means in context you're missing the whole point of the opera). When I looked it up, I learned that soon after the premier in 1851, "every gondolier in Venice was singing it."

How cool is that? I don't know what the 2016 equivalent of this would be, or even if there is one. For now, the closest I get is when I go to my exercise class, where the geniuses at Les Mills have picked out just the songs I didn't know I wanted to hear, and I fall in love without knowing it, and then I go home and listen to the songs -- songs that are already utterly familiar to me.

I don't love it that my music listening is so highly determined by fitness people. Something about that seems wrong. But what am I going to do?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

No Post, But Some Mildly Diverting Photos

Due to The Forces That Control The Universe, I was unable to write a post this week. For your entertainment needs, I can, however, offer a few mildly diverting photos.

This  is a a sign that appears on the TTC streetcars, and every time I see it, the illogic of it drives me crazy. It says: "Every day at least one TTC worker is assaulted. That's one too many." But that makes NO SENSE. If the average number of workers assaulted is 1.2, then "that's one too many" would mean that .2 is just right -- which is insane. I know this is a problem only a certain kind of person gets upset about -- but sorry, yes, I am that person.

The Bell Lightbox, home of the Toronto International Film Festival, is one of my favorite places anywhere. There's a great story behind it, of how Ivan Reitman --who produced and directed many great movies like Ghostbusters -- donated the land, which had previously been the site of his immigrant parents' car wash for many years. The Lightbox shows amazing movies all year 'round, and also has these fantastic historical posters up all over. This is the poster from the first TIFF, back when it was called Festival of Festivals, in 1976. I just love the imagery, which reminds me so powerfully of the weird hopefulness and optimism of the 1970s.

This is a panel from an amazing book called Ann Tenna. It's hard to describe so I'll quote from the Kirkus review: "[This] graphic novel tells the story of Ann Tenna, a media-obsessed NYC gossip columnist, founder of a Gawker-like website called Eyemauler. She trash-talks live from Ann Cams embedded in her powder compact and in a baguette in her Fendi bag, and despite/because of how awful she is, she’s constantly beset by a crowd of sycophants . . . After a near-fatal traffic accident, she ascends to the astral plane, where she meets her eternal self and spirit guide, who gives her 'full body, mind and spiritual, mental, emotional and electromagnetical treatments designed so you can see who you ideally are.'" Yes, you read right: metaphysics, social commentary, and makeovers. In this panel, Ann is about to return to Earth, and she says, "But I NEVER want to got back to that unevolved, toxic, planet of pain, misery, and genetically modified foods." I'm with you, Ann, all the way.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Pain, Nitrous Oxide, And The Interpretation Of Sensation

I don't know if you've ever encountered that idea that pain wouldn't be so bad if you could just relax and enjoy it. OK -- maybe you not "enjoy" it, but you see the basic idea: it's not that pain is essentially bad, it's more that the way you respond to the pain that's bad. 

When I first encountered an idea sort of along these lines (I think it was here), I thought, "WTF"? It seemed to me obviously false. What was pain if not something bad? If you weren't feeling something bad, I thought, you'd hardly classify the sensation as "pain." You'd call it something else. A "funny feeling." Something "strange." How could it be pain if it wasn't bad?

Then I had to have a bunch of dental work. It's always been true of me that I don't respond much to novocaine and those other things that are supposed to produce a numbing sensation. There were times years ago I'd have to get shot after shot after shot .. and still it wouldn't work great. It's no wonder I developed a lot of anxiety about dental work.

The dentist I've seen now for the last ten years or so -- well, his office is set up for nitrous. The "magic nose," as he's used to saying - to his patients who are literal children instead of metaphorical ones.

As we've discussed before on this blog, I learned that nitrous and I were made for each other. The last bunch of times I had to have serious dental work, I had nitrous, and not only does it make me feel awesome and happy, it also takes away the pain. One shot of novocaine -- and I'm totally good. I mean, with nitrous, I'm not only pain-free -- I'm having a good time.

Anyway, after a few uneventful sessions fixing various things with "the magic nose," I got talking about nitrous with my dentist, and he said that nitrous is not actually a pain reliever -- it doesn't work that way. It's not obvious why it works, exactly. He thought that maybe the nitrous relaxes you and that's what makes a difference, either because a very tense person's body breaks down things like novocaine too efficiently, or maybe -- and this the crucial bit -- because a tense person experiences pain differently from a relaxed one. Hm, is it possible that nitrous just allowed me to "relax and enjoy it"? 

At the end of that conversation he said to me nervously that he hoped our conversation wouldn't undermine the nitrous effect for me. Maybe if I thought it wasn't a pain-killer, it wouldn't work as a pain-killer. We all know in these murky domains, subjectivity transcends theory and becomes a real thing. But nothing like that ever happened. Nitrous continued to work for me just as perfectly as it ever did.

That conversation was about four years ago, and for all that time, I'd been wondering if I had to revisit my resistance to the idea that pain was bad because of the way we interpret it. Maybe I could feel the drill touch my teeth and expected pain. Maybe I imagined something harmful happening, so my brain interpreted the pain as something bad. Maybe that's why it hurt. Maybe what the nitrous did was change my attitude: "Oh, ha ha, a little drilling never hurt anyone!"

Then about a year ago, I had an experience that took the whole thing to the next level, because I had to have a root canal. And the endodontist I was going to see? He didn't use nitrous.

I was a little freaked out about it. I told him about my typical situation with novocaine, and he said not to worry, there'd be no problem. He said he was an expert number, knowing exactly how to get the novocaine into the right spot so it would work. He said if I wasn't totally numb, we wouldn't do it. No worries.

So I settled in and we started with the shots. And they didn't work, and we did more shots. And they didn't work, and there were more shots. And more. And eventually we got to the point where the endodontist said that we were maxing out: it wasn't safe to have too much more, so if the next one didn't work, we have to cancel the whole thing and regroup for another day. Fortunately, the next one worked!

Here's the thing, though. To see if the shots had "worked," the endodontist did a special test. He had a special tool with a soft tip that was super cold. I had to close my eyes, and he would ever so gently touch the tip to my tooth. If I could feel it, the shots hadn't worked. Not only could I feel it -- I just about jumped out of my chair every goddamn time.

The whole point of the exercise, of course, was that the test was about what experience you're having when you don't know what is happening. So at least we can say one thing: whatever my dental pain is, it is not contextual. That is, it's not because I'm primed for pain, ready for pain, expecting something bad is happening, that the pain happens. And it is not only because nitrous changes my outlook or interpretation of my sensation that it takes away the problem. There has to be some other mechanism involved.

This doesn't settle the matter, obviously. I mean, no one in an endodontist's chair is in a mood to "relax and enjoy it." And maybe there are other ways to experience pain and not have it be bad. Who knows? But it certainly made me think that nitrous doesn't work by changing how I interpret my sensations. It works by actually making me feel less pain.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The "Attractor" Of Individualism And Its Basin Of Attraction


 Lately when I think about individualism in advanced capitalist societies, I find myself latching onto a certain mathematical picture -- something associated with what's called an "attractor."

With the refreshing literality characteristic of mathematics, "attractor" in this context means something like "attractor" -- a spot that attracts. More specifically: "an attractor is a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system."

I'm thinking here of individualism in the sense sometimes associated with liberalism and neo-liberalism. In the basic sense: people are best understood as conceptually and practically independent from one another; they properly get what they need and want in life by negotiating and making deals; there is no such thing as society. In the more advanced sense: we should embrace the entrepreneurial self.

The reason I think of individualism as an attractor is that once you get going on the basic idea, the idea creates the conditions for its own flourishing. It's like an infection where the mechanism creates the environment where the infection can thrive. At the end it's like a cultural Roach Motel: people can get in, but they can't get out.

For example, consider poverty. It used to be possible to think of poverty as a structural problem: we live in a society that's not working for some people. Maybe there could be structural solutions?

But the attractor is close enough to exert its magnetic pull. Through some invisible process, the question gets reframed in terms of helping individuals by giving them a leg up. Characteristic of this phase is the bizarre idea of "education" as some kind of solution. Like: "Engineers make more than baristas. If we could train everyone to be an engineer, no one would have the problem that baristas are poor." Of course this is crazy: as long as we want coffeeshops, someone's going to have the problems of being a barista -- it doesn't matter what kind of education people have.

Now that we're closer to the attractor, though, the pull is even stronger. Having acknowledged that some people are going to be baristas and others are going to be engineers, individualism forces us into the possibility that it's OK that some people are baristas and poor and others are engineers and not. Like: Oh, baristas will be poor, but that's OK, because everyone has the chance to be an engineer. Life is what you make it, yada yada yada.

But of course, life isn't what you make it. People start from massively different starting points. If your parents are poor, or they don't speak English well or whatever, or you live in a crappy area with crappy schools, you are starting from way behind -- it's going to be massively more difficult for you to become an engineer.

Instead of taking this as a reductio of individualism's implications, the attractor moves people toward other ideas. Some of those ideas are things like charter schools, choice, teach character development to small children, whatever. In the end, the simplest way to avoid the cognitive dissonance is to go back to individualism itself, and here we find our way to, "Well, sure, some people are going to be baristas and not engineers, but what I can do about that? I mean, I'm just one person." 

Which -- given the creeping effects of individualism -- is actually more and more true. Because the closer you get to peak individualism, the stronger the magnetic pull toward individualism.

I don't know about you but I feel like I see this dynamic the time. Social problem identified. Solutions canvassed. Collective solutions rejected for being insufficiently individualistic. Possibility of collective power dismantled. Individualist solutions proposed. Individualist solutions rejected, on grounds that they won't make a difference anyway. Which at this point they probably won't. And so on and so on and so on.

In the elegance typical of pure mathematics, there's a concept called the "basin of attraction." Technically: "An attractor's basin of attraction is the region of the phase space, over which iterations are defined, such that any point (any initial condition) in that region will eventually be iterated into the attractor..."

Which is a fancy way of saying: there's some range of starting places from which you can't help but fall into the attractor.

I don't know when, exactly, modern western society went from skirting around the edges to actually falling into the basin of attraction for individualism. Was it Reagan and Thatcher in the 80s? Was it back with colonialism? Did Locke have something to do with it? I have no idea. All I know is, I think we're in it now.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Global Economics And Inner Morality Of Drug Mafias

Regular readers know of my admiration for Roberto Saviano, who wrote the amazing book Gamorrah about organized crime in Italy. Now I've just been reading his latest book ZeroZeroZero, which is about how organized crime -- especially that associated with the movement of cocaine and other drugs -- functions in the global economy.


It's no surprise that massive drug cartels operate like large and powerful businesses -- after all, that's why they call them "cartels." But Saviano also argues that the global economy of crime is hugely intertwined with the global economy of everything else -- so much so that you could almost think of cocaine as the essential commodity, the consumer good that not only drives the world's economic changes but also profoundly affects global politics and, by extension, the everyday lives of people around the world.

It's a complicated argument to make, and at least some readers wish it could have been made less impressionistically. But I found it fascinating. Saviano tries to tell the tale of cocaine by tracing out highly individualized stories and connecting them to the bigger picture. Though the stories of the individual narcos are vivid and extreme, I was in some ways even more interested by the narrative concerning Wachovia bank, money laundering, and the whistle-blower Martin Woods.

You can read about the Wachovia story at the Guardian here. Billions of dollars from drug money was filtered through Wachovia in direct violation of all kinds of laws, side-stepping all kinds of internal guidelines. Woods, hired to be an internal senior anti-money laundering officer for Wachovia in 2005, kept telling his superiors that something was up, and kept getting shushed and eventually harassed. Finally, Woods meets someone outside Wachovia who is willing to review the evidence, and the bank's defenses come crashing down.

Saviano's take on it is partly that of course it is massively in the bank's interest to look the other way. All the incentives were, and presumably still are, in that direction. To me, it is hilarious to consider this in the light of the comments at Naked Capitalism about how banks are harassing small-time customers who want to use cash rather than cards, sometimes with the excuse that monitoring and preventing cash transactions is necessary to prevent money laundering.

From the point of view of moral philosophy, the book has much to ponder about self-interest and society, and especially about the bonds that enable people to keep commitments to one another even as they perpetuate the most cruel and inhuman behavior imaginable.

Not surprisingly, those commitment are embedded in Hobbesian webs of threats and violence that ensure that people do as they're expected to do. These kinds of stories always make me reflect on the newer "self-interest" theories of morality, where the idea is that if everyone does what's actually in their (enlightened) self-interest, things will work out for the best.

In a passage from an old article in the New York Times that still rankles me, Steven Pinker tried a version of this moral jiu-jitsu. Trying to say that self-interest will lead people to act morally, Pinker wrote,
"If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it."
The idea being something like "Gee whiz, if I want you to be nice to me, I'll have to be nice to you! Unless I'm Galactic Overlord, but of course that doesn't apply to any of us."

Among other things, this just always seemed to me so naive about the nature of power. You don't have to be Galactic Overlord to be able to boss other people around; you just have to have power over them, wherever that comes from. Then, self-interestedly, you can do whatever you want. In fact, self-interest can often recommend perpetuating harm and violence.

Early in ZeroZeroZero, Saviano tells the truly horrifying story of a guy who is actually a DEA agent and who manages to infiltrate deep into the drug cartels of the "Golden Triangle" -- Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua. When he is found out, the people he has betrayed realize that, rationally speaking, they must punish him in ways that will serve as a powerful reminder for anyone who might dare to try something similar. It can never, ever happen again. As Saviano says, "No one was ever to forget how Kiki Camarena was punished for his betrayal."

[If you're sensitive about violence skip this next paragraph]: Toward that rational end, "Camarena was tortured at Gallardo's ranch over a 30-hour period, then murdered. His skull, jaw, nose, cheekbones and windpipe were crushed, his ribs were broken, and a hole was drilled into his head with a screwdriver. He had been injected with amphetamines and other drugs, most likely to ensure that he remained conscious while being tortured."


Of course, the whole thing was taped. How else could it work as a warning? In fact, one of the prime strategies the criminals in Saviano's stories use to keep people afraid and keep them in line is YouTube, with videos of torture posted as warnings. The whole thing is a paradigmatic use of rational thinking-- incentivizing others to do what is in one's interest.

So really, you don't have to be Galactic Overlord for self-interest to recommend that you abuse others. You just have to have power.

At one point, describing a lengthy discourse from a mafioso, Saviano points out that he's heard "dozens of speeches on Mafia moral philosophy." And I thought, "Wow, that is really what it is." Is any philosopher studying the moral philosophy of the Mafia? I don't know. I can only say that, really, somebody really ought to get on it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Gutting The Social Commentary Of Opera: The Case Of The Marriage Of Figaro

From the COC production.

 Over the weekend, I went to see Mozart's Marriage of Figaro at the COC. It is an amazing opera, dealing with sex, love, and the fickle nature of the human heart. It's also about class, gender, power, and the relics of the feudal system in the eighteenth century -- but unfortunately you wouldn't know that from the staging of the COC production.

Do you know the story? It's the eighteenth century,  and the Count's loyal servant Figaro is about to marry the lovely Susanna, the Countess's maid. The Count is bored with his wife the Countess, whom he once loved passionately. He not only flirts with his more attractive female underlings, he also abuses his position of power to badger and coerce them into reciprocating his sexual attentions.

Even though the Count says he is all about abolishing "feudal privilege," in fact he is plotting and scheming to prevent the marriage so he can have Susanna all to himself. Through plotting and scheming of their own, Susanna, the Countess, and Figaro subvert his plans, and make a fool out of him.

Like so many works of artistic genius, the opera works along multiple dimensions. It's a comedy, with ridiculous disguises, mistaken identities, people hiding behind curtains, that sort of thing. It's also a love story, with all the modern rom-com conventions. And, on top of all that, it's a social commentary.

One of the more interesting social commentary aspects is reflection on the "sexual double standard." Why does the Count get to fool around with impunity, while his wife's briefest admiring glance brings censure and rage? Yes -- it turns out that people have actually been thinking about this problem for over two hundred years.

But the main social commentary has to do with power. The Count gets to do whatever he wants, because -- well, because he's the Count. If this includes sex with Susanna -- well, what are Figaro and Susanna going to do? They're servants. They're under his orders and under his protection. It's not like they can up and leave, wander the countryside for other options.

The opera takes you to the brink of horror -- is the Count really going to rape Susanna and prevent Figaro from marrying her, thus ruining both of their lives? -- before bringing you back to a happy ending through antics and absurd plot devices (literally "OMG, that's actually Figaro's long lost mom!").

Of course the Director chose to showcase how relevant a story of class, power, and sex is to our modern era -- Oh, just kidding! In fact the staging was such as to undercut the social justice commentary and to "psychologize" the whole thing.

Infuriatingly, the physical direction showed Susanna sort of willingly going along, as if it's a kind of half-hearted flirtation on her part and not a case of control of the weak from the strong. The Count is presented not as a menace, but just as a kind of bossy and irritable guy. There's a scene where in the story, the Count is going to kill someone out of jealous rage. The way it was in this production, you find yourself thinking, "Well, he'll just shout a lot and then he'll get over it." It changes the whole point of the story.

In the program notes, the Director says that in his interpretation, the characters are "completely torn between morality, desire, and impulse," and that this was why he wanted to "follow the characters into their darkest psychological depths, but at the same time leave space for exploring the utopian moments in Mozart's music."

Could any artistic statement be more of its time? I mean, for all the ridiculous hand-wringing about political correctness, so much art has become de-politicized. Or -- you can make political statements these days, but you can't put politics and entertainment together. Somehow it's like people think the Venn diagram of "entertainment" and that of "thinking about society" should be empty.

There's a trend of focusing on individuals, and what's in their hearts and minds, instead of the social structures and context around them. The forces of of individualism have become so deep and pervasive, it's like people find it hard to even conceptualize the idea of "social justice" as "social." The director thus sees only individual characters, torn between their own sense of morality, dignity and obligation, and their own desire, eros, and impulse.

As longtime readers know, this keeps happening to me with opera. I thought it might be something to do with the COC, but many of the productions with the same problem were created in other places and then brought here. So it's some kind of widespread phenomenon.

With all these productions, you'd think we were all living in a post-class and post-gender paradise, where everyone is equal and no one can exert absurd control over one another, where the idea of coercion and sexual assault through power dynamics was somehow past us.

As if you'd say to yourself, "Well, this opera is partly about power, gender, and class. But we don't have those problems in our society, so ... Wait, I know, I'll make it about the characters' 'darkest psychological depths!'"

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Despair In Art, Philosophy, and Life; Or, Schopenhauer Goes To The Movies


I loved the movie Anomalisa, so I was very happy when my friend sent me a link to this piece by Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books.

I was especially happy because people kept asking me, "What's that movie about?" and I didn't have an answer. The plot has to do with a middle-aged man on a business trip who meets a young woman -- but when I say that people are like, "Oh it's about a hook-up?" and I'm like, "No, it's not about a hook-up." I considered saying it's about the human condition, but I thought that would be too ridiculous.

Now Smith has some ideas. It's about being "stuck between those twin poles of want and boredom." It's about the "horrors of the will" -- the endless endlessness of being ourselves -- broken only by moments of aesthetic contemplation. It's about loneliness. And it's all done with puppets. Did you know that it's all done with puppets?

Smith happened to see the movie with a philosopher friend, and she analyzes the movie through the lens of Schopenhauer's philosophy. I know almost nothing about Schopenhauer, beyond tiny things bordering on caricature. Dark sort of guy. Didn't like women. Down on love.

Smith quotes quite a lot from Schopenhauer, thus giving me a glimpse into his philosophy and a chance to see Anomalisa's themes in philosophical language. It goes something like this:
"Desiring lasts a long time, demands and requests go on to infinity; fulfillment is short and is meted out sparingly. But even the final satisfaction itself is only apparent; the wish fulfilled at once makes way for a new one."
To which my first thought is "Well -- yeah. I know that. I've known that forever. I think about it every time I see a two year old crying. "Welcome to the human condition, kid. I'm sorry it's like this!"

And to which my second thought is "Wait, what the hell am I doing with my life? I mean, what am I doing as a philosopher?"

Because this happens to me pretty regularly. I experience something in art or literature and feel all emotional and connected and I read the same ideas in philosophy and it seems completely cold and dull and inert.

So WTF am I doing? This is a thought I've had before, many time. A lot of philosophers, I find, say that they really love philosophy. But I've never really felt that. I'm often ambivalent about philosophy. I often find it dull and lifeless. I often find it annoying. Or, as I put the problem in this interview at the APA blog:
"My most favorite thing about philosophy is also my least favorite thing: the way philosophy allows you to abstract away from the contingencies of our world. On the one hand, this is wonderful, because it allows us to take a fresh perspective and imagine realities different from our own. On the other hand, too much abstraction and philosophy becomes useless, inert, and disconnected from anything that matters."  
Over time and with the help of friends I've developed talking points for myself about why I'm doing what I'm doing. Basically it's like this. I like to think about things. I find my style of thinking is particularly well-suited to the style of philosophy. It comes pretty naturally for me. I believe that in the grand scheme of things that philosophy has some really useful and important things to contribute to understanding the world. So: it's worth doing; I'm pretty good at it; I might as well do it.

As I rehearsed the talking points to myself after reading Smith's piece, I started thinking about different kinds of philosophy and about the fact that the kind of philosophy I do has very little overlap with the kind of philosophy in Schopenhauer.

There are some very complex reasons for this having to do with philosophy in Anglo-American culture and its institutional development, but there are also simpler more personal reasons. For me, those simpler more personal reasons have to do with the fact that despair, boredom, the human conditions and the meaning of life aren't things I find I can understand better by thinking about them. In fact, thinking about them gets me nowhere and makes me feel awful.

I don't know if you've ever had that experience, where you start to feel like What's The Point, and then you get into that weird delusionary mood-moment where you think that maybe, if you had some quiet time for reflection, you might possibly move forward on this question in way that makes your life better?

And then you sit and think about it, and not only do you not feel better, you really feel much worse, because not only have you put yourself face to face with the fact that there really is no point, and that awful things are going to keep happening, and that even good things are going to be disappointing -- now also instead of having those thoughts in the course of normal activities you're having them during some "quiet time for reflection" -- which makes them seem darker and more grim and more horrible.

That is partly why, while I have nothing against the philosophical study of despair and the human condition, it's not the kind of thing I'd ever work on. In fact, it's not the kind of thing I want to read other philosophers writing about.

I'm happy to leave contemplation of such matters to people like Charlie Kaufman, who had the brilliant and utterly original idea to explore the problem through stop-animation puppetry.

In any case, I knew Anomalisa would make me feel sad and maybe even despairing, so I'd planned ahead for the activities following the movie: I had a martini, with someone I love, in a crowded bar. We talked about the puppets, and I tried not to think too hard about what it's like to be alive.