Monday, December 27, 2010

The Real Self Of Love

Image from a 2002 site about combining Viagra and Ecstasy.  Do people still do that?

I don't know if you read that story in The New Yorker the other day, by George Saunders, about the future?  It was called Escape from Spiderhead.

The story is about a guy convicted of a crime who instead of going to prison becomes a kind of designer-drug guinea pig.  The main good thing about the story is the names Saunders comes up with for the drugs and technology that the guy is testing.  "Verbaluce" gets you talking. "VeriTalk" makes you tell the truth. "Darkenfloxx" causes despair.

The drug they're testing makes you feel like you're in love.  Like, whoever you're with when you take it, you feel superconnected to them and also like you really really want to have sex with them.

The testing is meant to feel creepy, and it does.  Our hero takes the drug, sees one woman, falls in love with her, then when the drug wears off, goes completely back to baseline human indifference.  Then he takes the drug again, sees another woman, falls in love with her, then when the drug wears off, goes completely back to baseline human indifference.

The drug makers' plan is to market the drug to people who can't love enough, or who love the wrong person, or who love too much, to make sure they love in just the right way.  That's meant to feel creepy too, and it does.

But what exactly is so creepy about it?  I was pondering this question when I started thinking about certain philosophical theories of autonomy and selfhood.  Some of these theories try to articulate autonomy with reference to what a person endorses when they rationally reflect.  So, for instance, suppose you smoke, but on reflection you decide that it's best to quit.  Autonomy would mean quitting, in line with your rational self.

A person who fails to quit, whose desire overwhelms them, isn't really autonomous.  Part of the intuition is that a desire that comes from something like an addiction comes from "outside you" since it doesn't come from your thinking self -- the self that is you.  Other views dispense with the rationality part of the story but retain the idea that you and your desires can be deeply at odds, and when you are, this is a failure of autonomy.  For instance, on views like Harry Frankfurt's, it is only when your desires are in line with what you want your desires to be that you are a free, autonomous person.

Now the weird thing is this:  if these theories are right, then the Love Drug isn't creepy at all.  Indeed, used properly, it would be an aid to a person's autonomy and well-being.  Think of it this way.  If you decide you ought to love your longtime spouse, and you take the drug, and it works and you love them, then you're good to go:  you're desiring what you want to desire.  If you want to desire one man rather than another, one woman rather than another, you take the drug, and BAM -- you're good to go.  Your emotions are suddenly in line with your thoughts.  A dream of unity between the emotional you, the physical you, and the rational you.  It should be perfect.

So either there's something wrong with these ways of thinking about autonomy, or the creepiness is due to something else, or it's not creepy after all.

Maybe there's something to it's not being creepy after all.  I mean, lots of people have said that drugs like Prozac make them feel more themselves.  Why not a drug that makes you love who you want to love, and lust after who you want to lust after?  Isn't that a way of being, really yourself?  Actually, one might say, if you don't take the drug, you're just letting yourself be dicked around by a bunch of hormones.  Aren't you?

Or maybe it only seems creepy because it happens in a lab?  The love potion in Midsummer Nights Dream doesn't seem creepy in the same way.  It's just sort of funny.  So maybe the creepiness we feel is because we know what pharmaceutical companies are like, and they creep us out?

Or maybe there is something wrong with thinking of autonomy -- or at least well-being -- in ways that value the stable, the rational, the thoughtful, the slow, over the impulsive, the changeable, the emotional, the crazy.  Because those other parts of us are still us -- and they're the real self of love.  Aren't they?  Or is that just an old-fashioned irrational preference for chaos?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Notes On The Title Of This Blog

Weird backgammon board from gammonline.
 "So," I'm often asked, "'The Kramer Is Now?' What is up with that?  Is that, like, Kramer from Seinfeld?"

1.  No, it's not Kramer from Seinfeld, it's a Kramer Cube, as discussed in the most under-appreciated novel ever written:  Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League.  The title is my homage to Cleo, the most under-appreciated heroine in noveldom.  I wrote about Her Awesomeness Cleo in the first post on this blog.

2.  The Kramer Cube is a device to help cure Jumping Frenchman's Disease.  Our Heroine, Cleo, has a Cute Guy in her life, named Shaver.   Shaver suffers from JFD, and he spends much of the novel sleeping in the Cube.  This is convenient for Cleo, who then gets to run around playing hockey and having adventures.  Who doesn't want a Cute Guy in a Kramer Cube in their life?  Nobody.

3. There's a sidebar quote from the book on the blog front page that involves a conversation between Cleo and a nosy reporter.  The reporter has come from some lifestyle magazine to do a photo-shoot-and-interview.  The reporter is, of course, excited by the whole Kramer-Cube-With-Shaver-In-It.  In the way of lifestyle magazine reporters, she wants details.  "What's next for you two?" she asks.  And Cleo says, "I don't know. I haven't thought beyond the Kramer. The Kramer is now."

4.  And it's that sentiment, of not thinking beyond the Kramer, that's the important one.  I'm a philosopher -- that is to say, I teach philosophy at a university and I research and publish in philosophy as an academic discipline.  Philosophy is all about reason, reflection, and thinking about things.  To tell you the truth, it gets to be a bit much.  I mean, all that thinking can get a person down.  I wrote about this before, on my old blog, in the context of the suicide of David Foster Wallace.

As usual, Hume really said it best, back in  1748:
"Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? ... I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther."

 --  An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
I really like that.  You get yourself out of the darkness of thinking either by "relaxing this bent of mind" or "by some avocation, and lively impression of [the] senses."  Isn't Hume the greatest?  Don't you think he'd have appreciated, for his backgammon game, the board at the top of this post?

5.  So "The Kramer Is Now" expresses my ambivalence about reflection, and is a reminder to all of us, to Cool It With The Thinking Already.

6.  I'm an "accidental" philosopher.  Accidental as in "happening by chance; not planned; "nonessential or incidental."  I never set out to become an expert on The Big Questions like What Is the Meaning of Life?  In fact, I studied math in university and graduate school and never studied philosophy 'til I was almost thirty.  I like studying philosophy a lot, but as you've understood if you've read so far, I'm not wholehearted or unambivalent about it, and I don't regard myself as being inevitably involved in the pursuit of truth or anything like that.  The thing I miss most about math was the way you could go for years without being asked for your opinion about anything.  In the humanities, one has to produce dozens of opinions every day.  It kind of wears me out.

7.  "Encounters modern life":  pretty self-explanatory.  Modern Life and I have a complex relationship.

8.  Brenda Starr, Girl Reporter.  Patricia Marino, Girl Philosopher.  You get the picture.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sex and Sexism

From an article about women in video games.
 I used to be a little puzzled by the connection between sex and sexism.  Discussions of sexism often bring together several different things, things like discrimination against women, treating women in a way that is degrading or demeaning, and treating women as objects of sexual desire.

When I was young, it puzzled me that the first two would get put in together with the third.  It seemed obvious to me that discrimination against women and treating them in a degrading or demeaning way was wrong, and really bad.  Indeed, it was because this seemed obvious to me, and because I could see both things happening all the time, that I've always considered myself a feminist.

But being treated as the object of sexual desire?  What's so bad about that?  Don't people want to be considered attractive? Of course, for either sex, it can be annoying when someone you don't especially like starts hitting on you, and of course, it's awful when people just won't stop pestering you and it becomes harassment.  But just being the object of sexual desire?  How is that a problem?  The question always seemed most puzzling when I considered the way men are always clamoring to be the object of sexual desire.  How could what's good for them suck for us? 

Not surprisingly, as I grew older and learned more about life, I came to understand that the connection between sex and sexism has to do not such much with "being treated as an object of sexual desire" but rather "being treated only as an object of sexual desire."  That is, being treated as if your only possible worth or value comes in how sexually attractive you are, and in your worth as a possible sex object.  If you're sexually attractive, this sucks, because you can't get men to engage with you respectfully as a whole person.  If you're not sexually attractive, it sucks even more, because you can't get men to engage with you respectfully at all. 

Obviously not everyone contributes to a state of affairs in which women are treated only as sexual objects, but the people who do have various methods.  Men who never talk to you except to hit on you, men who remind you of your sexual status at every turn, and people of either sex who comment only on the attractiveness of women and not their other qualities all help sustain a world in which women have trouble being considered as whole persons.  Even just flirting, if that's the only kind of interaction you have, helps bring about such a situation.

By the way, if you're the sort of person who wonders, "Why do women get so indignant when they're whistled at -- it's a gesture of appreciation!" this is part of the answer.  Yeah, sometimes it's a gesture of appreciation.  But often it comes with a jumble of mixed signals, a mixture in which "this is the only way you matter - so ha!" comes through loud and clear.  Actually, in my experience, there is a fine gradation of such signals, determined by tone, context, and facial expression, that determines the extent to which the intended message is mixed up this way. 

Now, there's a more complicated way that people can send the only-sex-objects message, and that's treating a woman as a sex object in a context in which she's primarily there in a non-sex-object way -- for example, when she's your colleague.  The idea is that if you treat a woman as a possible sex partner in a context in which she's there to do her job, you're sending the implicit message that the job isn't the important thing, where the sex-partner thing is.  This is how flirting can have so many different aspects to so many people.  Is it harmless fun between equals? Or is it reinforcing a sexist status quo?

What to do about these problems?  It would be possible to aim for a kind of desexualization of interactions, creating clearer no-flirting zones and the like.  But I think there's another possibility, suggested by reflection on men.  Men can be sexual objects without only being sexual objects.  How so?  Well, there are two things.  First, there's an overwhelming sense in which men are always treated as more-than-sexual objects.  Cultural artefacts of all kinds -- movies, TV, news, etc. -- constantly reinforce the image of men as having multiple kinds of worth and value.  Second, and perhaps relatedly, it's pretty easy for men to be both the objects of sexual desire and valued colleagues, researchers, workers, dads, politicians, people with opinions, etc. etc.  Indeed, an attractive guy is often an attractive guy because he's some of these things.

This suggests a crucial role for a state of mind in which a woman can be an object of sexual attraction and lots of other things all at the same time.  I used to be optimistic that we could create a world in which such a state of mind would predominate, and thus, just like men, women could be sexually attractive and engage in mutual flirting, and still, at the same time, be treated as and valued as full persons in their own right.  And if the woman isn't one you want to flirt with, fine - you can still value her in all the other ways.

As time goes on my optimism gets more tempered.  We've still got a constant barrage of movies in which women are only around to have pretty hair and make the sandwiches, we've still got men who, instead of flirting with women, sexually harass them as a way of bringing them down a notch or two, and we've still got a shocking disregard for women who are not physically attractive in the conventional ways.  We've still got women's sports leagues that can only exist if the women wear the right kind of sexualized clothing.  And there is a troubling correlation between sexualizing women and being sexist.  It would be nice if places like Italy were bastions both of romance and of feminism, but it doesn't seem to be happening.

All of these put pressure on the solution of getting people to recognize and value women multidimensionally.  Not so easy after all.  I hope it's obvious, though, that women are not going to suddenly become happy to be considered only sex objects.   That is just not happening.  So this would mean more of the other solution:  desexualization and more flirting-free zones.

Maybe that is for the best but it seems a little sad.  I mean, most people in the twenty-first century spend all their time at work as it is, and that's where they meet everyone they know.  No flirting, no asking out your coworkers, no little compliments on someone's new hairstyle or snazzy high heels ... I'd be sorry to see all these things completely lost and forbidden.  Hopefully we can mix in a little of the first solution.

So, the connection between sex and sexism lies not in simply treating women as objects of sexual interest, but in the the sexist attitude conveyed by treating women as only, or primarily, of value as sexual objects. What I'm suggesting is that unless we can move toward multidimensional valuing, we'll be heading for desexualization instead. 

You know how they say, "If you want peace, work for justice?" 

Well, if you want sex, work for feminism.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Shopping, Materialism, Ho Ho Ho!

From some Italian site, natch
I like to go to malls even when I'm not actually shopping.  Yes, you read that right.  I like to go to malls even when I'm not actually shopping.

Well, maybe not to suburban malls.  But I live in Toronto where the main mall is the Eaton Centre, a totally awesome urban mall, and I definitely like to go to the Eaton Centre even when I'm not actually shopping.  I go to the Eaton Centre on my way to the gym (a gym which is actually located inside the mall, how great is that?); I go to the Eaton Centre to get coffee at the bookstore and do a little work; I go to the Eaton Centre to check out what's going on at the Apple Store.  Occasionally I sit and have a glass of wine at one of the Eaton Centre bars or restaurants.

So, as you can see, when I say I like to go to the Eaton Centre even when I'm not actually shopping, I am putting my money where my mouth is.

What I like about going to the Eaton Centre is that it's crowded full of all different kinds of people, all basically having a good time.  You got your overexcited teens; you got your weary grandparents.  You got your Nice Responsible Young Persons.  You got children of all ages.  You got Barbie lookalikes with their BCBG bags; you got homeless people hanging around the food court.  Rich and poor, hip and square:  everyone is at the mall.

People get down on malls.  There are some reasons for getting down on malls, but I don't think they're the usual suspects.  A lot of what you see at the Eaton Centre is families, speaking all the languages of the world, buying cookware, clothes for the kids, computers and toys.  Sure, I guess that's materialistic in the basic sense of the word, but it's also buying stuff that just enables you to have a nice life.

To me, what's nice about the mall is the powerful reminders of the basic sameness of humanity.  The man in an expensive suit, the woman in a headscarf, the kid with the newest Nikes, and me, we're all there to buy the same stuff.  This feeling probably reaches its apex at the Apple Store, where were literally there to buy the very same exact thing -- but it's in the mall in a general way too-- we're certainly there for the same activities.  I love that.

Now I know some people find it dispiriting to think that the thing that brings us together is shopping, but as I partly tried to explain here, I don't, really.  I mean, nice stuff is nice; what's not to like?  Sure, it's bad when we get into disposable crap and planned obsolescence.  But you don't have to shop for crap to shop for fun. 

What's easy to forget about materialism and consumer culture is that, as so often, just because something is bad doesn't mean the alternatives aren't worse.  I don't know if you know that amazing book by Haruki Murakami about the Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks in Japan?  Basically Murakami talks to the people who experience the attack -- it happens in the subway -- and then talks to people in the Aum Shinrikyo movement.  The people in the first half of the book, reflecting on the question of how this could happen, were often inclined to cite the breakdown of morals and the new materialism.  But weirdly, the movement itself is deeply anti-materialistic:  the whole point is to live in an ascetic way.  It wasn't materialism that led to this horrible thing; it was anti-materialism.

It's not hard to see how this would happen.  For better or for worse, if you're into buying stuff, you have extra incentive to play by the rules.  If you're not, and you don't care ... well, you don't care.  Sure, this cuts both ways, and if you're trying to plan the next revolution, shopping is probably getting in your way.  I'm just saying in terms of ordinary, everyday, peace in living together, a love of shopping can be our friend.

Getting back to malls, one thing about malls I am uneasy about is the whole private-space-public-space problem.  A mall is, of course, owned, and mall owners make all kinds of terrible rules about who can hang out there and when.  This does make the mall, for me, a somewhat guilty pleasure.  But hey, as a non-driver, I'm putting in a fair amount of public-space-time as it is.  Nobody should have to put up with staring, elbowing, harassing, and spitting all day.  Speaking of which, what is up with the new habit of public spitting? Completely disgusting.

So if you're out shopping, and you're feeling worn down, just remember, if you want to know when the lion and the lamb will lay down with one another, it's happening now, at the mall.  They're both trying to get a closer look at the iPad before going off to grab some fried foods at the food court.