Tuesday, June 19, 2018

How Is It Possible That Several-Hundred Dollar Handbags Feel Essential To Adulthood?

For me, one of the most striking things in the aftermath of Kate Spade's suicide was learning how many other people thought of her bags -- and her bags' general price range, of several hundred dollars -- as lying in what was seen as sort of modal zone of "grown-up."

The sentiment runs throughout this piece in The New York Times:

"At midrange prices of several hundred dollars, they were aspirational but within reach of some women who were starting their careers."

"for so many women, buying that first kate spade bag was your first grown-up purchase."

"A Kate Spade handbag was the very first 'nice' 'grownup' thing I ever had."

I realize I am out of step with the nation along several dimensions. But really? You have to spend hundreds of dollars on a bag to count as a modern grown-up? 

No doubt my life in academia helps explain how off-trend I am. The most expensive bag I ever bought was one of those collapsible Longchamps nylon bags, at 70 dollars. The nicest bag I own is a Coach bag I got at a thrift store for 25 dollars. I've looked at Kate Spade, and I've thought to myself, "Hm, kind of pricey." I'm so off-trend I don't even carry a bag most of the time. I'm just throwing everything into my backpack.

In many ways, my ability to use a backpack and carry a cheap bag are manifestations of my privileged position in society. Back in 2013, Tressie MC wrote a great piece about how poor people have to buy, and wear, expensive accessories in order to gain respect from the fellow citizens, and thus to be employable. Many people need nice accessories, because they're literally a job requirement.

I would also like to emphasize that I am not saying there is something wrong with buying nice bags because you like them. I buy and love other expensive things, and I am not criticizing the purchasing of expensive bags for fun.

However, what I am saying is just that in a society where $15/hr is an aspirational minimum wage for most places, the idea that a few hundred dollars is considered an entry-level adulthood bag is strange and fucked up.

Of course, it's significant that this sentiment was appearing in The New York Times, and so you might think "Well, what did you expect"?

It's true that when I started reading the New York Times I was an easily bored college student sitting with some eggs-over-medium with friends. The fact that the homes were millions of dollars and "cheap" wines were my weekly paycheck didn't bother me, because I just thought of that part of the paper as written for aliens. I could just read the news, and ignore all that.

But newspapers have changed. The fact that Kate Spade's bags were accessibly aspirational is now intertwined with everything else. Newspapers want to be relevant, they want to reach us in different ways, and they want to reflect our concerns.

Like so many people, I have been prompted by this to obsess over the question of who the news thinks it is for. The answers are frequently disturbing. The New York Times is obviously for people with the kind of financial background in which spending hundreds of dollars on a bag is part of the baseline of what's just normal in life.

The creepiest aspect of the whole thing is the use of that word "grown-up." So: you can't be an adult if you're poor? Minimum wage earners are condemned to eternal childhood? WTF? If that's the way expectations are set up, it's not surprising that young people are stressed out of their minds.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Why Does Buying Something Feel Like Such A Thing?

I've had a kind of self-imposed moratorium on buying stuff, because 1) I already have most the stuff I need and 2) there are other things I can use that money for and 3) the environment. I'm not boasting or treat-deprived: I still spend a lot of money on things like coffee and wine and having people make food for me -- because preparing food in advancing and bringing it with me some place is somehow an activity I've never been able to manage.

Since I'm not treat-deprived, I've been surprised at the urge to buy stuff and by the texture of the anticipated pleasure of buying stuff. I kind of gave myself an exception-clause for buying clothes for exercise or dance class, because 1) I actually did need more exercise clothes and 2) who doesn't want to look good while they're dancing?

As a woman of a certain age, it's not every day I find exercise clothes that I think make me look good, so when I found a cool Nike mesh top that fit me perfectly, with cool sleeves between short-sleeves and three-quarter length sleeves, I was pretty excited and I bought it on the spot. Yes, I waffled about supporting Nike, yes, I did the merry-go-round of weighing the options of trying to buy a shirt from some other company and whether they would treat their workers better, and yes, I went briefly down the rabbit hole of what it meant to support a giant corporation. Those thoughts didn't get me anywhere. In the end, I was like, "If it's good enough for Serena Williams, it's good enough for me."

I wore it, and I liked it so much, I thought I might buy another one in another color, or at least swing by the Nike store to check that out as a possibility. I thought about what times I'd be over by the mall or whatever and how I could squeeze that in, and it felt like such a prospect of a treat. Like really something to look forward to at the end of a day.

The more I thought about the idea of another shirt, though, the more it seemed like a bad idea. I was trying to buy less -- did I really need two mesh shirts? Plus, if I bought a shirt now, it'd be less reasonable to buy some other slightly different shirt later, since I'd already have enough. And wouldn't it be more fun to have a potential future shirt, with all the open-ended and unseen magic that could entail, than a repeat of a shirt I already have, already fading from being washed, hanging in my closet?


I decided not to buy the shirt. But, bizarrely, the idea that I had something to buy stuck around in the back of my mind. I continued to think about when I'd be near the mall, so I could go to the Nike store. I kept fitting it into my imaginary future days, and when I pictured it, I felt such a ping of pleasure at imagining the process. 

And that is what was so surprising to me. I'd already decided against buying the shirt, and yet the prospect of having something to buy --the sheer prospect of a purchase -- felt like something to look forward to. As I thought about it, I realized this is a common thing for me, to feel like buying something is somehow a thing, it's something to look forward to in itself, the buying being some kind of additional pleasure to the object itself -- an object that may well, for various reasons, ultimately be a bit disappointing.

It's surely not news that buying stuff can be a pleasure in itself, adding to or even transcending the feeling of the thing purchased. Why else would we live in a world where people's houses are full of stuff? But, still, I found myself weirded out by it. Why? Why should paying money and getting a thing feel like a thing? What kind of thing is it? Does it feel like a treat, like a cupcake? Or is it more like the pleasure of an accomplishment -- oh, I'm taking steps to feather my nest?

In a previous post I wrote about how the frictionlessness of payment systems makes people experience more pleasure in buying, and so they spend more and feel less invested in the purchases they end up with. But I pay with cash a lot. And honestly, even though I find it much harder to part with cash than to pay by card (as do we all, I guess), even the buying with cash experience feels like a pleasure, or at least a thing -- a thing to be registered on the positive side, something to be planned for and something to look forward to.

In any case, given that there are so few things I need and want to buy, I've been surprised at how often my mind goes to "buy something" as a pick-me-up for a low mood and how weak the rationality part of my mind works in response.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Mystery Of The Omnipresent Starbucks Disposable Coffee Cup

Regular readers know that I recently upped my game with respect to carrying my own coffee cup. In my perfect world, every coffee place has reusable ceramic mugs that can be washed. In my actual world, it's often a paper cup or carry your own mug around.

Regular readers may remember my previous reflection on these matters, which focused on the way that, having upped my game on this one tiny thing, I then became ultra notice-y, and dare I say even a bit judgey, about other people and their coffee cup choices. Which is a bit ridiculous, since I regularly forget or misplace my coffee cup and use the paper ones myself. But I'm sure I'm not the only person out there who is committing a transgression one day and moralizing about it the next.

Still, once I started being notice-y about coffee cups, I started to notice the really stunning number of disposable coffee cups out there. Virtually everyone who goes to Starbucks gets their coffee in a disposable cup.

For a while, I really thought of this as a mystery. I mean, I expect a lot of the people getting coffee at Starbucks consider themselves environmentalists, or at least people who recycle and do basic things to cut down on their garbage production. The Venn diagram overlap of Starbucks type customer, climate-sensitive vegetarian, and careful recycler seems pretty large to me. And coffee cups are hard to recycle and usually end up in the trash.

Yes, carrying a mug around is a bit of a pain. But the crazy thing is that even people who are sitting at Starbucks are usually drinking out of a paper cup. All you have to do is ask to have your coffee "for here" and get it in a ceramic cup and you're good. So, WTF?

The more I thought about it, the more I came to think that Starbucks isn't only selling coffee. They are selling that coffee-paper-cup experience. There is something about that cup -- and, let's be honest, the sophisticated and superior lid system -- that makes the Starbucks coffee drinking experience what it is. The coffee cools at the right rate, the cup is clean and white, the shape is pleasing to drink out of.

Then I thought: there's something about modern life that makes that coffee-paper-cup experience feel like a tiny luxury, in a world where for most of us, luxuries are hard to come by. The crapification of everything means that most of the objects and systems we interact with on a day to day basis are in some way frustrating, or easily broken, or fragile in a dumb way. My god, just using a modern public washroom is insane: the automatic toilet flushes when you don't want it to, and then it doesn't flush when you want it to, and then you can't get the automatic water faucet to go on so you're desperately shaking your hands, and then your ears are assaulted by those new hand driers.

So many things are like that now. But the Starbucks coffee-paper-cup experience isn't like that. It works and it feels nice. Why else would the Starbucks in the US automatically put a lid on your cup, instead of letting you decide whether you need a lid or not? The only explanation is they're trying to give you the full coffee-paper-cup experience. No decisions required.

Recently I visited a suburban sprawl area of Connecticut. This is where my mom used to live, and it gives you some sense of what it's like that until recently, the closest Starbucks was a 20 minute drive away on a major highway. But now there is a Starbucks right in town, and while I was visiting, I went there to catch up on email and do some work.

And the damnedest thing happened. I found myself drawn to that ridiculous paper cup. I had my travel mug with me, and instead of putting it in my backpack like I always do, I left it in the hotel room. I wish I had a convincing psychological explanation for my absurd behavior, but I really don't. The only thing I can think is I was worn down by the driving and the endless ugly plazas and whatever. My reusable mug seemed old and scratched up and coffee stained, and I wanted that coffee-paper-cup experience.

So my theory is that the coffee-paper-cup experience is a tiny luxury island in an ocean of annoyances, and that's why it's an exception to all the other social norms of life.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

I Get Tired Of Having Opinions


For me, one of the most exhausting things about being a humanities scholar is the constant having of opinions. As regular readers know, I used to study math, and then I switched to philosophy. One of the first things I noticed when I made this switch was the fantastical number of opinions I was suddenly expected to have. "What did you think about that article"? "What do you think about framing the issue that way?" " What do you think about the curriculum being this rather than that?" And of course, the omnipresent "What do you think of that philosopher? Are they smart or what"?

In case it's not obvious, "I don't know what I think about that" is not an escape from having an opinion. It is, in its own way, an expression of a point of view. If your interlocutor is like "Isn't X completely outrageous"? and you say "I don't know what I think about that," you're not going to be heard as expressing "no opinion."

By comparison, math is a haven of rest for the mind. Most of what you do in advanced theoretical mathematics is find and write out proofs of things. While there are debates at the margins, there is vast agreement about how you do it, and what there is to be done. The difficult part is the doing it, because, as Barbie knows, Math Is Hard. But you don't have to have a million opinions about it. You just have to do it. I remember I would spend hours in mental effort and frustration working on math problems, and I would come away refreshed: my mind would be pleasantly tired and worn out, and would have escaped thinking about things like global injustice or whatever for a few hours.

In my experience, there are a few strong opinions in math, but they tend to focus around a few math-y issues, like "How should we teach math to non-math people" and the all-important "Is that branch of math difficult and important or easy and stupid?"

By contrast, in philosophy, opinions infuse everything, and they're often opinions about huge topics that many people have strong feelings about. Obviously you're having opinions when you draw philosophical conclusions. But it goes way beyond that. There are opinions about what you choose to talk about or not talk about, what you choose to draw on in making your argument, what you think is "persuasive" or "relevant."

I sometimes encounter the idea that there should be fewer opinions in university teaching, and that one problem with the humanities is the way professors rely on or convey their own opinions in teaching. In some ways it is a complicated issue, because I agree that opinions are constantly flying in all directions, and it matters which opinions are where. But I'd say the issue with opinions in humanities teaching is never "if," but always "how."

In choosing to assign some readings rather than others, you're expressing an opinion. In responding to student questions, even if it's just to draw connections between their comment and the readings or other comments, you're expressing opinions -- about what is significant, interesting, similar or different.

I actually go out of my way to de-opinionize, especially with controversial topics, asking students questions like "From the point of view of author X's theory, what conclusion would we draw about this example?" We can explore that question together, regardless of what opinion we have about author X's theory. I also try to assign readings that express a range of views. I am often cagey about my own opinion, not because I am under the delusion that I can be "objective," but just because when the professor says "I think X," that makes it easier or harder for some students to express an opinion of X or not-X or something else like Y. It's a tricky dynamic.

But there are limits to de-opinionization. What is "a range of views"? Over what topics should views range? If we're studying medical aid in dying, and I assign one text saying that it's immoral because of the sacredness of life, and another saying it should not be legalized because of the way its use discriminates against people with disabilities, is that a "range of views"? Any way of framing the issue makes assumptions about what the main question is and what is, and is not, up for debate.

A million choices about how to respond in classroom interactions also convey opinions. In my teaching evaluations not that long ago, a student expressed strong satisfaction that the classroom interaction was one in which they felt comfortable asking or saying whatever they wanted, without fear of being attacked or shut down. In the same batch, another student expressed the feeling that because of the open dialogue, the contributions of the other students verged on being misogynistic or problematic in other ways.

What this shows is partly that what is a good class atmosphere for one person is not necessarily a good class atmosphere for everyone in the same way. What atmosphere you want in class is, like everything else, not a matter of objective matter of fact, but always reflects a set of opinions. You can't get away from opinions. You can only try to use the ones you think best in the most constructive way. Exhaustingly, even that project is often difficult.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Bus Riding Experience And Living In Late Capitalism

Last weekend I went to Vernon, Connecticut to visit some family members. Vernon is kind of near East Hartford, kind of in the middle of Connecticut, which means it's like a suburb in a state that is, itself, almost like a suburb of something else. All of that to say: it's a place where transportation becomes a major issue for me.

As regular readers know, I hate to drive -- and I often take the bus. I find it exhausting to pay close attention to a high-stakes and potentially lethal activity over a sustained period of time, and I find it stressful knowing that a wrong move could cause life-changing injuries or death for other people or myself. As someone who doesn't drive a lot, I'm constantly amazed that this kind of insane activity has become so embedded in everyday life.

Anyway, for complicated reasons, when I visit Vernon I usually fly in and out of Logan Airport in Boston. This is because a bus ride between Toronto and Hartford takes around 15 hours (literally, as we say nowadays -- you can look it up), and because flying between Toronto and Hartford is complicated and expensive. Going between Logan Airport and Vernon, I face a major decision: I can drive, which is around 1 hour and 45 minutes, in some pretty intense traffic, or I can take a sort of long public transit journey involving  the Silver Line bus between Logan and South Station and a bus between South Station and Hartford.

In the past, I've usually settled myself into what seems to be everyone else's denial, that driving is a normal everyday sort of activity, and done the drive between Logan and Vernon. This time, though, I was sick with a bad cold. So on the way back, I decided to do the transit option. And for the bus between Hartford and South Station, my best option was the Megabus (the fancy Acela doesn't stop in Hartford).

I have no complaint about the Megabus itself, which left on time and arrived early. What this post is about is about the Megabus ... um ... pick up spot? Which is 1) not associated with a station 2) not associated with a street address, 3) not marked as a Megabus location, and 4) not near any normal places where you could get some water or use a bathroom.

On the ticket, the "from" location is listed as "Hartford, CT, Columbus Blvd between Morgan & Talcott St." Here is the place viewed from across the street:


And here is the view from the bus stop:




I feel like having a bus that picks you up at an unmarked location between one street and another, surrounded by freeway overpasses, is a symbol of something distinctive about modern capitalism even if I'm not sure exactly what it is. Hartford has a perfectly good bus station, one that is actually linked with the train station, and is right downtown, very convenient. So I'm assuming this arrangement arises because there are fees associating with using the terminal that Megabus wants to avoid. I'm not blaming Megabus -- they want to offer cheap fares and make money. And who knows how those fees are set? Still, the outcome seems bad, and I hate the feeling that the things poor people use get worse and the things rich people use get better.

From a governance point of view, driving is massively subsidized, even though car accidents are a major cause of death and horrible for the environment. You couldn't toss in a few bucks for a bathroom, a water fountain -- or, I'm really dreaming now -- a ticket counter for bus riders? Maybe you could even incentivize companies like Megabus to use your station, rather than charging them for it?

From a markets point of view, when I'm reflecting on these matters, I frequently find myself thinking more broadly about the market forces that shape the options I have and don't have as a consumer. I want to take a reasonably comfortable bus ride, and I am willing to pay a bit extra for that, since I am lucky in making a good salary. But that option doesn't exist for me, partly because the other people who make the money I make prefer to spend it on driving. So, to satisfy my consumer preference would require getting enough people to share it that it becomes a profitable option for someone else.

When it comes to driving and busses, I think that project is a lost cause. Nobody likes to take the bus. In enjoying a ride of kicking back, with my podcasts and playlists, daydreaming out the window without a care in the world, I see to be in a tiny minority.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Juuling And The Youth Mood Of Comedic Despair


 I loved Jia Tolentino's recent New Yorker article about teen vaping and the rise of the Juul -- which was not only informative but also avoided the whole "OMG teens are doing a thing, oh no."

In case you don't know, a Juul is an electronic nicotine vaporizer that looks like a flash drive and that you can recharge using your computer. A lot of the article is about adults worrying that Juuling, like other kinds of vaping, is creating nicotine addicts instead of helping them -- but let's just pass over that part. From a cultural perspective, I'd say that the most noteworthy things about the Juul are the aesthetics, the mood, and the price.

Aesthetically, at first I was surprised to hear that teens found smoking "gross" and Juuling cool. I smoked for a long time, and though I quit years ago, I still miss smoking. And of course most of that is nicotine-related, but clearly I am not alone in thinking that smoking is cool. And if you're coming from a point of view in which smoking is cool, how could you prefer this ... piece of plastic with "rounded edges and a gently burnished finish"? It sounds like a generic piece of computer equipment.

But the cool of Juul is explained later: "Teen Juul iconography radiates a dirtbag silliness. Vapes are meme-ready, funny in a way that cigarettes never were: the black-and-white photograph of James Dean smoking in shirtsleeves has been replaced with paparazzi snaps of Ben Affleck ripping an e-cig in his car. In one popular video, a girl tries to Juul with four corn dogs in her mouth." This I can understand. If Instagram is your aesthetic reference point, and everything should either be sleekly sexy or humorously ridiculous, the Juul is going to fit your life and a cigarette is going to seem ash-producing and literally filthy. Of course, there's a generational factor: the teens interviewed are very clear that Juuling is for the young: one person describes her older sister as a Juuler -- and how weird that looks, because her sister, at 23, is "older."

The teens that Tolentino interviews have a perspective on Juuling, and on life, that I found not only familiar from my own youth but that actually resonated with my mood right now. One young man said that "Juul represents his generation’s 'tech-savvy ingenuity when it comes to making bad decisions,' but added that "his generation was most flippant when it came to serious things, 'like health, or mortality.'" When asked if Juuling was a destressor for young people or a source of stress, a young woman said, "I don’t know ... People definitely stress-Juul. But everything we do is like Tide Pods. Everyone in this generation is semi-ironically, like, We’re ready to die.”

In a way, I feel like this is a general feeling in adolescence, which is why teenagers engage in so many risky and unhealthy behaviors. Those behaviors are fun, and who cares? This is not a knock on teenagers, by the way -- they may very well be right about the meaning of life and it's the rest of us who are trapped in the risk-averseness of growing up.

But in another way, I feel like "semi-ironically ready to die" has a particular resonance to being young in modern America. With climate change, police shootings, school shootings, health-car-via-GoFundMe -- for fuck's sake. In this context, "semi-ironic" is kind of a heroic stance.

In any case, price-wise: at least for teens, Juul is expensive. Teens can't shop in the online store, so there's a whole resale-markup-dealer situation going on for them, and Juuling is associated with teens who have cars and money. I don't have much to say about this except that it is ultra coherent with every other trend in which extra money is more and more essential to having any of the things.

Part of me wants to share and partake in the generalized mood of comedic despair that the Juul seems to refer to. But, at my stage of life, I also feel an obligation not to be too ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. We older people are supposed to have perspective and experience that will enable us to be constructive and helpful, to maybe steer the world toward solutions; even if there aren't any solutions, we have an obligation to care for people and help them feel less alienated and frightened. Ultimately, like Juuling itself, comedic despair is not always good look on a middle-aged person.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

TKIN Is Back In Action

After a brief hiatus, this blog is back. The plan is to resume posting every Tuesday, starting today with a reflection on consumer loyalty programs, Canadian frugality, and American profligacy. Thank you, loyal readers, you're the best!

Why Do Canadians Love Consumer Loyalty Programs?


When I moved here in 2004, one thing I did not anticipate about Life In Canada was the ubiquity of consumer loyalty programs. As Canadians well know, these fall into two categories: there is the Mother Of All Loyalty Programs, the so-called "Air Miles" program, and then there are the zillions of smaller ones, like Canadian Tire Dollars, Shoppers' Drug Mart Optimum cards, and endless coffee punch cards. My university eateries even have a punch card loyalty program for soup.

I generally don't participate in consumer loyalty programs. I'd like to say this for high-minded reasons related to surveillance and resistance, and sure, that's part of it, but the real reason is that I'm trying to get on with my fucking life. I don't know how people have the patience and mental energy to carry around all these cards and fish them out of their wallets at the appropriate moment, never mind waiting for every other patron in front of them to do the same. Am I the only person who wants to die when I'm behind seven people in the LCBO line and the cashier says "Air Miles"? and the customer is like 'Oh ... yeah ... uh ... wait ... I can't ... um ... hold on ... can you do it with my phone number?"

I know there are loyalty programs in the US, and people use them at the grocery store, but somehow the whole thing takes on a different texture here. If you're not Canadian, you might not appreciate the way loyalty programs are such a centrality of life here.

The "Air Miles" program sounds like something to do with frequent flyer miles -- and when I first moved here I kept confusing it with "Aeroplan," which is the actual miles program associated with Air Canada. But AirMiles is everything. You get points on different kinds of purchases and then you spend them on all kinds of things. 

News and controversy about loyalty programs regularly feature on the front news page of the CBC webpage, and in recent years the rewards of Air Miles have been big news. It used to be that Air Miles didn't expire, and then in 2016 it was announced that they would, so people would lose miles received before 2012. People were enraged, and the company backed down. Then the federal government stepped in and said that loyalty programs can't have expiration dates. The Air Miles people were also accused of shenanigans, where you could only see the big rewards if you didn't have enough points for them, and later they disappeared. Then last year people started stealing Optimum points. I don't know how this works, but it's like you're racking up points at home in Sastaktoon and someone goes and spends your points in Quebec.

This corner of Canadian culture gives me mixed feelings. For one thing, seeing news stories like "Thieves steal millions of PC Optimum points" as headline news, I often go through a two-step emotional response. First, I feel a wash of gratitude, that I am lucky enough to live in a country so peaceful and prosperous that "Thieves steal loyalty program points" is big-time, national news. But then, there are newsworthy things happening in Canada, and sometimes I learn about Canadian news related to Indigenous people or foreign policy in The Guardian. So I'm like, Wait, why wasn't this covered at home? Why are we reading about loyalty points?

More fundamentally, I'm ambivalent about the kind of sensible Canadian frugality that seems to motivate the careful, ongoing, attentive use of loyalty programs. Canadian frugality is so different from American profligacy. These are, I think, deeply rooted cultural differences. Go to Buffalo and you'll see block after block of huge, beautiful Victorian houses, made of wood, with high ceilings. Cross into Ontario, and you'll see houses made of brick, with small, cozy living rooms, perfect for keeping warm in a cold climate. Even in the late 1800s, Americans were thinking Go Big Or Go Home.

I admire Canadian frugality -- it is probably linked to all kinds of other wonderful Canadian qualities like generosity and good sense -- but I cannot see myself reflected in it. I know that by punching 12 punches in a card I can get a free cup of coffee, but I just don't care. Sure, at this point I'm lucky to make enough money that I can just pay for the extra cup, but honestly I wasn't frugal in this way when I was a waitress and a grad student and trying to help my poor, widowed mother. I'd rather ratchet down my living standard altogether, or go without the extra cup of coffee, than attend to the ways that I can incrementally make things better by paying careful attention over time.

My reluctance to participate in loyalty programs is a source of ongoing interpersonal awkwardness for me, especially buying coffee on campus. The efficient and helpful people who work in food services here are always like "Coffee card?" and I'm like "No, thank you," and sometimes they ask "Why not?" and I try to explain "I can't handle keeping track of all those cards" -- and then we look at each other with mutual misunderstanding. It always reminds me of when an American colleague came to visit our Department, and went to buy wine at the LCBO, and the cashier said, "Air Miles"? And she, befuddled by what this could mean, answered "Sorry, I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not even from this country."

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Elena Ferrante Novels, Philosophy, Naples, and Me

It seems like forever that I'd been meaning to read the Elena Ferrante novels about Naples. I kept hearing how good they are, and how they are about Naples in some deep sense. Naples is interesting to me, partly because my grandmother's family was from Gaeta, near Naples. Also, I read the book Gamorrah and saw the movie, and it's about Naples. The movie has incredible scenes of housing projects that are simultaneously horribly run-down and dysfunctional and also weirdly beautiful. I remember when I saw the movie, the discomfort I felt at aestheticizing someone's poverty. But then, so much about movies involves complicity with some morally questionable aestheticizing of something.

Finally in April I started reading them, and once I started I couldn't put them down, and now I am in the middle of the fourth and final book. In one sense, the books are primarily about the state of womanhood in the modern world: about women's relations with other women, with men, with family, with work, with the various constraints that form the tracks that guide our lives into territory we hadn't meant to be heading toward.

But the books are also speaking to me in more specific ways. One theme has to do with the relationship between the world of books, learning and ideas and the worlds of practicality, poverty, and politics. Not surprisingly, this is something I think about often. As I often tell people, my journey into academia was initially prompted by my condition as an American without health insurance working as a waitress. Though I didn't have money, I was lucky to have had a lot of cultural capital, and I was good at math, so I figured it might work out. A zillion years later, here I am, a professor of philosophy.

Over these years I've become increasingly interested in doing philosophy in ways that connects it up with ordinary life, but in my darker moods I despair of this even being possible. You have ideas, and you want to bring them to life in context; but very quickly the situation reveals itself to be one of convincing some people to believe one thing rather than another or at least question something to which they've long been committed, which is no longer a problem in philosophy but more a problem in politics and rhetoric. And honestly, if you want people to reconsider how they see the world, a novel or a movie is going to be way more effective. So, in these moods, I'm like WTF am I doing?

I know there are answers; I wrote about some of them here and here. If you can't think things through for yourself, you can't form your own opinions at all; thinking is often difficult and uncomfortable. My friends have answers too, and they talk me down. Still, there is this feeling of a distance, between the idea world and world of people, events, and things. In the Naples books, this distance moves from metaphorical to literal, as the characters' different paths renders them able to communicate only imperfectly.

A second more particular theme is the specific social and class structure of Italian and Neapolitan society in the decades between 1945 and now. I have to admit an uncomfortable truth: that there is something about the dysfunction of Italy that soothes and appeals to me. This is uncomfortable for the obvious reason that it's horrible to feel positive in response to people miserable over lack of work and failing social structures. Of course, I don't feel positively about it on balance. I see its badness.

But if there is a twinge of something, I think I can chalk it up to this. Italian society seems explicitly and self-knowingly in a post-empire state: one in which the choices are often all bad, and the task is muddling through. In North America, by contrast, the mood of optimism, the relentless moral smugness, and the rhetoric of opportunity, meritocracy, and free choice exist exhaustingly alongside the reality of exploitation, global violence, and oppression. I feel like it would be comforting for me for the surface to match the reality, for the mood of the people and even the infrastructure to reflect, in an obvious way, the darkness.

I keep wondering who Elena Ferrante is. I know the name "Elena Ferrante" is a pseudonym, and I know that a few years ago there was an internet kerfuffle over her real identity. I do not know -- because I don't want to know, at least not yet -- whether that kerfuffle ended in her identity being revealed. As a result, I have exerted Herculean self-control not to look this up. I guess I don't want to know what her real relationship is to Naples, or to academia, or to other people. Given that all of this information is like ten keystrokes away at any given moment, it's hard to say how long my ignorance can last.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Is This Blog On Hiatus Or What?

After almost ten years of regular posting on this blog, I find myself unable to put the words together on a regular basis. What is up with that?

Is it that I'm busy with extra administrative tasks at my job? I've had over a hundred applications for two short-term academic jobs to read over the last couple of weeks, so maybe.

Is it that I'm worn out putting words together? I am revising a draft of my book manuscript -- tentatively titled "The Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Opinionated Introduction" -- which requires massive amounts of time rewriting, reorganizing, reframing, reeverything, so sure, that could be it.

Is it that writing anything on the internet right now feels either nerve-racking or pointless or both? Sometimes I get into a mood where for everything I might say, I can imagine immediately what the various intellectual and emotional responses are, and I can imagine how I feel about them, and then I move on to how that seems from a wider point of view, and ... Once I start in that direction there's no real destination for me except cocktails. Sometimes with even one tweet, I can through that whole mental process and I'm so over the whole thing before I even start typing. I've been in that mood lately,  I expect that yes, there's some of that.

Is it the disconnect between the hilarious prose that I want to write and the plodding prose I feel I end up writing that's getting me down? The other day I was joking with someone about a topic so dark and awful I am not even going to name it here, and we were laughing hysterically. I felt, as I so often do, the power of black humor to make life feel worth living. But, as they say, dying is easy and comedy is hard. Plus, black humor on the internet is tricky. Did I mention that writing anything on the internet now feels nerve-racking or pointless or both?

Maybe it's time to shake things up. We'll see. I'd write more now, but I have more job application files to read before tomorrow. See you next week, hopefully!