Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Two Faces Of Branding


A couple of months ago I read Eddie Huang's book Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir. If you haven't read it, it's about his life growing up as an Asian-American in the US and doing all kinds of different high-intensity activities like getting into fights, going to law school, and opening a restaurant. The book was the origin of the TV sitcom with the same name, though as I understand it the book and the show are quite different.

Of the many interesting and funny things in the book, one topic that really got me thinking had to do with brands. Brands are a big deal in this book. As a kid, Huang discovers that hip-hop culture, and the clothing associated with it, give him a way to challenge Asian-American stereotyping and racism.

Huang grows up in Florida, where his social experiences are constantly reminding him of the fact that he is seen as Asian and thus seen as being a certain kind of person with certain kinds of qualities -- many of them qualities he does not have or want. He talks about how in American movies Asian men never get the girl, and how Asians are stereotyped as deferential and non-assertive.

The racial stereotyping take many different forms, many of them social and peer-oriented, some of them professional. When he expresses his dream to become a sportscaster on ESPN, his father says, "They'll never let someone with a face like you on television." Huang thinks his father doesn't know what he's talking about. But later he has an interview with a newspaper, to do sports journalism, and the "big white guy" doing the hiring takes one look at him and says, "Oh, wow, that face ..." which turns out to mean that no athletes are going to talk to him with "that face" because he looks "... so young." He doesn't get the job.

Huang is a wound-up aggressive guy who likes to scrap with other guys, get into people's faces, and get into all kinds of trouble, and at one point he realizes that his being that way is a big problem for people. He says, "I was a loud-mouthed, brash, broken Asian how had no respect for authority in any form, whether it was parent, teacher, or country. Not only was I not white, to many people I wasn't Asian either." 

Early on, Huang gravitates toward hip-hop music, style and culture, and as he grows up and learns things, he comes to realize that connecting with black American culture allows him a way into a mode that is both embracing genuine identity -- not trying to be white -- and also outspoken and non-apologetic.

And wearing clothing brands associated with hip hop culture is a big part of that: it allows him to connect with people he wants to connect with and also show people he's not the stereotype they are putting on him.

That, of course, is part of what branding is all about. I mean, if you ever read the business section of the paper and you get a glimpse in to what companies are doing when they talk about "creating and and maintaining brands," that is exactly the kind of concepts they use. The  idea is to create a set of feelings and ideas around your brand so that consumers will connect with it and see the brand as representing who they are.

Somehow, when I read about branding strategy from the corporate perspective, it usually seems so dumb. I mean, the idea that some company is going to use fashion models and ad guys to link up their brand of car or vodka or shirt or whatever with some set of impressions and feelings, and the idea that you would then use those brands to express yourself -- it all seems so cynical and ridiculous, like one of those debased aspects of consumer culture that is too stupid to enter into and yet in some ways unavoidable.

But then when I read Huang's book, using brands to express yourself didn't seem stupid -- it seemed clever and interesting. Of course, part of that is because what he's using brands to do is clever and interesting, and isn't your run-of-the-mill I-have-more-money-than-you. Still, the basic concept is the same.

I guess in a way it's not surprising that you can use the tools of capitalism to sometimes do cool things. After all, sometimes the tools of capitalism are the only tools we have.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

French Islamophobia, Fashion, And Freedom

From Tommy Hilfiger's Ramadan Collection
Here at TKIN we usually avoid the low-hanging fruit. I figure, if something is just really obviously stupid and wrong, you don't really need a whole blog post about it. But we're making an exception today -- because I can't help myself from saying something about this article that appeared in the New York Times in April, describing French reactions to the introduction of modest clothing from various clothing lines.

What started it all is that big name fashion brands, like Dolce and Gabana, H&M, and DKNY put out modest clothing lines -- long skirts, long sleeved tops, a swimming outfit that covers up -- with the implicit suggestion that they were hoping to attract Muslim consumers. Tommy Hilfiger had a "Ramadan collection," and Dolce and Gabana offered abayas and hijabs. Marks and Spencer offered a "burkini."

Some people in France are very upset. The minister for women's rights said the clothing represented "social control over women's bodies" and should not exist. The co-founder of Yves Saint-Laurent said the designers were exploiting a misogynist system and should "have some principles." Philosopher and influential feminist scholar Elisabeth Badinter called for a boycott of the brands that sell "Islamic fashion."

I'm sorry but -- has everyone gone completely insane?  I mean, we are talking about modest clothing. Has it really come to this? That the mere existence of modest clothing for women is some kind of radical problem?

Just a few decades ago, women were shamed and assaulted for not wearing modest clothing that was not modest enough. And today, even though the lines are drawn differently, women are still shamed and assaulted for wearing clothing that is not modest enough. You're telling me a world in which people say "she asked for it" because a woman wore a miniskirt to a party is also a world in which long skirts and covering clothing are banned? FFS.

In the most "reader recommended" comments at the Times, there are two ideas floating around, both of which seem to me ridiculous. One is that the clothing in question is misogynistic because it reflects a cultural double-standard -- in which women have to cover and men do not. The other is that the clothing in question is misogynistic on grounds that women wear it because they're "forced" to.

The commenters at the Times like to think they're very clever, but both of these are a logic fail. The clothing itself isn't anything. Selling modest clothing just gives people the option of modest clothing -- an option anyone I would think anyone has a right to.

To deny this entails saying that the world would be a better place if women didn't have the option of long skirts and covering clothing. So, what -- now we all have to show some tits and ass to save the United Federation of Planets?

From a philosophical point of view, the whole thing recapitulates the essential problem that Francophone culture has with the idea of banning clothing as religious symbols. Because things -- and especially clothing things -- are symbols only in virtue of how they are interpreted. As articles of clothing, they are also just articles of clothing.

As a million people have said before me, how can you say something is wrong when some people do it but "fashion" when Jackie O. does it?

More abstractly, I think there's a tendency to think about cases like this in terms that pit one absolute against another. Like: either you're for radical freedom of the individual in all cases because that's Truth, Justice, and the American Way, OR, you think society and social reality impact on people in complicated ways so that "individual freedom" is just a code for "we'll leave you alone to sort out your own damn problems."

But these things are highly contextual. At this point in my life, I believe that clothing, like food, has entered the category of appropriate radical individualism. That is: let people wear what they want, for the reasons they have, and don't have a lot of opinions and judgments about other people. Let people eat what they want, for the reasons they have, and don't have a lot of opinions or judgments about other people.

For me, it's not that these things follow from some abstract universal truth about things always go best when you leave people alone to do what they want and never judge. I don't think that's true. Instead, it has to do with the contextual space that food and clothing now occupy. They're both intensely personal, uncomfortably politicized, domains where someone always thinks they know better than someone else. As, indeed, all of these French fashion people seem to think they know what's best for a whole bunch of other people.

But above all, modest and covering clothing for women should always be an option. How is that not obvious? And I say all of this as someone who loves to wear sexy, revealing, and flashy outfits. Because in addition to all the reasons already mentioned, there's this: how can I freely choose to wear the clothing I love, when there's no option to choose otherwise? Without any other options, I'd be essentially forced into it! Talk about "social control over women's bodies."

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Portrait Of An Artist As A Woman: Saint Phalle, Subversiveness, and Sex

Lifesaver fountain by Niki de Saint Phalle in Duisburg, Germany. Photo by JuergeunG, reproduced here under Creative Commons License.

I don't know if you happened to read Ariel Levy's recent New Yorker profile of the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who built gigantic sculptures in the hills of Tuscany in the 1970s.

Personally, I read the piece with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the gigantic sculptures really speak to me. They look so cool, looming out of the countryside. Plus, during the twenty years she worked on them, she lived in the sphinx sculpture, with her bedroom inside one breast and her kitchen inside the other. How cool is that?

On the other hand, as I read more about the artist herself, I felt ... annoyed. Saint Phalle lived a life full of self-created drama. She had a lot of "personal charisma," which helped to get people to pay attention to her art. She did a lot of pieces involving shooting a gun at stuff. About those pieces, she said, "I mean, it isn’t as beautiful as war, it isn’t as beautiful as seeing someone killed or the atom bomb, but it’s the most that I can do!" She had children, whom she then completely ignored.

But even these things, which are annoying to me, are complex and multifaceted. The shooting paintings, which she started in the early 60s, began as an attack on domesticity and the suffocating lives women were expected to live. Properly irritated that the way male artists could go around doing whatever they want while women were expected to cook dinner, she decided she would, herself, just start doing whatever she wanted. Part of that, obviously, was prioritizing her art over her children -- as so many men have done before her.

Levy puts it this way: "If American radical feminism of the time was about rewriting the rules of society, Saint Phalle had a different notion: she felt that the rules simply did not apply to her." I can really resonate with this. Because while it's important to change the rules, it's also important to have people just going off and doing something completely different. That's what art -- and artists -- are all about.

So the fact that she made a point of living, and doing art, in ways that challenge gender norms -- well, that's cool and kind of heroic.

And yet. The art historian Catherine Dossi is quoted here as saying that the more successful Saint Phalle got, the more her "challenge" to the establishment shifted away from "blowing up" domesticity, and more toward being a "femme fatale. "Always an extraordinary beauty, she starting doing more than making paintings -- she started putting on tight white jumpsuits and inviting people to watch her look amazing making them.

Frankly, on one level this is just depressing. Because making yourself hot and then inviting people to watch you do what you're doing? Not so much in the "challenging gender norms" category. Watching a sexy and beautiful woman do something is stereotypical.

And to me, even the mere fact of her beauty itself is frustrating. Do you realize how often when you read a story like this about a woman that it turns out her beauty and sex appeal is an important part of the story? Um -- always? Do you know how reading these stories over and over makes young girls classify themselves from the get-go -- the beauties, who can do the things they want, and the non-beauties, who have to play nice, find their way through, make people like them in other ways?

So I admit that when I learned about the white jumpsuits, my first reaction was disappointment and frustration. Really?

And yet -- however. The truth is that the link between beauty and subversiveness for women is real -- and even if it's a link they don't want it, it is put on them by the rest of the world. Saint Phalle says it herself:

"Here I was, an attractive girl (if I had been ugly, they would have said I had a complex and not paid any attention), screaming against men in my interviews and shooting."

She's right. And it's the same thing Courtney Love said -- correctly -- about getting cosmetic surgery (including a nose job) in her youth:

"I have to be pretty if I’m going to get over. And I have to get over if I’m gonna fuck [the system] up. And I’m gonna fuck it up."

And really, on top of everything, there's just the girls who want to have fun aspect. As women who have sex with men and men who have sex with men and everyone who has sex with men knows: if you want to have sex with men, and you want them to find you attractive, it's usually going to matter whether you look the part.

In this interview, Courtney Love lays it out with characteristic bluntness:

"When you’re fat like I was ... you do not get to fuck the boys you want to fuck. Right? Right? ... I swear to God, Lisa. I was a fat girl my whole life. No one would fuck, and when they did they’d do things like fart in front of me ... The minute I got skinny and got a nose job and became photogenic, and all of a sudden I had a bidding war, and every boy I ever wanted, wanted me."

Thinking about the matter this way, if you think it's important for women to get to enjoy life's pleasures, and if it's true that in our world a lot of those pleasures are more easily accessed the cuter you get -- well, I can't blame anyone for wanting to be as cute as possible.

So I guess all in all, if Saint Phalle wanted to wear white jumpsuits, and sleep around, and pal around with Jean Tinguely, and make giant Nanas -- big, bright female dancers with small heads and huge hips and breasts -- well, more power to her.

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.