Monday, June 24, 2013

Modern Life: Diaspora At Home

Bertha Worms, Homesick for Naples [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I don't know about you, but I often have a feeling like, "When are we going home from this place?" 

It's not that I have some home I'm thinking about going to. I grew up first in the suburbs of Boston, a regular old East Coast city, and then in the Connecticut commuter suburbs of New York. I have no interest in returning there. The texture of suburban life -- it's always been a problem for me. The houses surrounded by other houses, the driving, the buying a week's worth of groceries all at once -- these things make me feel more alienated, not less.

And it's not because I'm an American living in Canada. I'm not somehow pining for life in the US. It's true that I have an inexplicable and irrational love for my home country, but even when I'm there, I have this same subtle sad feeling of being in exile. But exile from what? 

I've come to think maybe it's part of the modern condition. I mean, I love modernity. A day without miniskirts, shoe-shopping, and cats on the internet is like a day without sunshine. But still, there's this other feeling too.

I wouldn't be the first person to think that living in a modern capitalist society induces, alongside its delights and liberties, a particular kind of alienation. But for me that alienation often feels surprising like homsickness.  Homesickness for a place that never existed, and never will.

It's a lot like the homesickness of people who are actually sick for a home. For example, I recently read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's excellent novel Americanah -- about a young woman who grows up in Nigeria, moves to the US for university, and ultimately returns to Nigeria. I was struck at her description of her homesickness.

Ifemelu has put together a full and complete life, with bachelor's degree, boyfriend, and blog, and yet ...

" ... and yet, ... [i]t had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glimpses of other lives she could be living ... "

I've had that feeling -- especially the sense of unsettledness, of glimpses of other lives. For all of modernity's pleasures, the limitless can be destabilizing. You wonder, "Is there some completely different thing I'm supposed to be doing?"

Of course, for Ifemelu there's a treatment -- "Nigeria became where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil." 

But what about the rest of us, who are already at home?

Thinking about this problem always reminds me of the incredible scene toward the end of Portnoy's Complaint, where Alexander Portnoy has gone back to Israel and goes out with an Isreali woman of pride, integrity, and maybe smugness. She's disgusted by his ironic detachment, his making a joke of everything, his relentless self-mockery, his refusal to take himself seriously.  She tells him he is what is all that is shameful in "the culture of the diaspora."

In a rage, Portnoy screams to himself in a silent speech that he'll show her -- he'll give her a venereal disease, he'll send her back to the kibbutz defiled, he'll make her see:

"This is what it's like in the Diaspora, you saintly kiddies, this is what it's like in exile. Temptation and disgrace! Corruption and self-mockery! ... Whining, hysteria, compromise, confusion, disease!" 

You don't have to be Jewish to understand this. I wouldn't trade modern life for anything, but it can be really really difficult, and even hateful, and as I've said before, you have to have a certain kind of tough-mindedness to make it even moderately workable. Temptation and disgrace aren't my particular bugbears, but I know irony and self-mockery. I know that once you're in modernity, you're trapped. You can't get out of it, because native, non-ironic attachment isn't something you can just get ahold of if you don't already have it.

"This is what it's like in exile."  Exile indeed. But for most of us this is home, and it's exile from nowhere. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Sex In The Future Will Be Boring

 Three items, assembled here for your interest:

1.  Unexcited? There May Be a Pill for That

It sounds like the opposite of boring:  a pill to enhance women's sexual desire.

But as all things to do with women and sex, it's complicated. Daniel Bergner's article in The Times last month puts the matter into a medico-sociological context. Contrary to longstanding myths that men want sex and women want love, hugs, and kittens, Bergner says, recent evidence suggests that women do want sex.

At least -- and here's the kicker -- they do when there's novelty.

The article is interesting if you can get past the ridiculous photos of women making sexxxy-time faces. Basically, the research Bergner presents says that women's desire dampens when they're in long-term monogamous relationships. He describes the hopeful participants in the study of potential drugs as fitting a pattern: middle-aged women in otherwise happy marriages, who enjoy sex with their husbands, but no longer feel the desire for it. They're all asking,"Am I going to get my freak back?"

You can't help but think: wait, so this whole thing is a buttress to convention?

And indeed, there's a fascinating passage toward the end where one researcher is quoted as saying, "You want your effects to be good but not too good," because, as he discovered, people are afraid of creating "a sexually aggressive woman" -- a "nymphomaniac."

Oh I see. We're aiming for a woman that wants sex, but just with one guy, and not too much. Haven't I heard that somewhere before?

2.  Natural Selection, Childrearing, and the Ethics of Marriage (and Divorce): Building a Case for the Neuroenhancement of Human Relationships

Speaking of monogamy, this scholarly paper argues that if, in the future, "love drugs" were to become available that would make you love a particular person, some married couples would not only be free to take those drugs, but might also be obligated to take those drugs. 

Because we evolved to spread our genes around and lifelong monogamy serves no particular adaptive end, we're a mess: we value loving, exclusive, relationships that last forever but we want to screw around. Love drugs, the authors say, can bring our values and our desires into coherence.

Actually, we've encountered the idea of love drugs on this blog before, in response to George Saunders' incredibly creepy story "Escape from Spiderhead." Among other things, that story uses the disturbing image of a human guinea pig lurching from one love target to the next to make you feel how awful the whole thing would be.

But these authors aren't thinking "lurching." They're thinking the Holy Grail of Matrimony: 2gether, 4ever, U and only U.

But if it's really an obligation, your refusal to become not only faithful in practice but also faithful in your dreams, your fantasies, the recesses of your mind, would become a moral failing.

Call me crazy, call me a sinner, but Sorry, No, Do Not Want.

3.   Book review:  Ethics, Sexual Orientation, and Choices about Children

Here's a review of a book that asks, if a treatment were available that could be administered prenatally, to fetuses who would otherwise grow up into homosexual adults, should parents be free to use it? 

The book answers "Yes."

Potential implications for the boringness of sex in the future are obvious.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Naked Accounting 101: The Course Catalogue Of The Future

Welcome, class of 2048!  We are pleased to offer you the most customizable courses in today's edutainment world.  The fun starts here!  New courses for this year include:

Nutty Professor:  The Lighter Side of Abnormal Psychology
In this 100 percent video-only, textbook-free class, you'll get an introduction to all the wildest and funniest mental disorders out there.  Topics include acting like a dick, drama queen-ism, and being a h8er.  Content is organized around reality-show footage with fun voice-overs by Woody Allen. 

No tests or papers; students evaluate their own work for assessment. 

Bonus offer:  for just ten dollars extra, get limited time access to the hilarious online drinking game, "I'm a cutter, you're a cutter!

The Physics of Star Trek

Physics is hard.  Instead of banging your head against a wall trying to understand torque, angular momentum, and Faraday's law, in this course you'll watch as George Takei explains the fun fictional physics behind cool things like phasers, positron torpedos, and dilithium crystals.

No tests or papers; students evaluate their own work for assessment. 

Bonus offer:  for just ten dollars extra, get your Star Trek fan fiction published in our alumni magazine!

Naked Accounting 101
Tired of boring old professors?  Learn bookkeeping from today's most famous virtual reality porn star, TeddieXXX-- and she's naked!  In these videos, Teddie and her "double-entry double-Ds" make the numbers add up as the clothes come off.  Comes in optional "clothes on" format for students with ADHD.

No tests or papers; students evaluate their own work for assessment. 

Bonus offer:  for just ten dollars extra, you can have virtual sex with your instructor!  Let's just say, these aren't your father's office hours

Monday, June 3, 2013

But Cell Phones Are Cool!: Unconscionable Naiveté In The Tech World And Beyond

Computing technology: useful, but not the solution to every single problem

I am so sick of hearing people talk about how information technology is going to save the world.  Nothing against the internet.  I love the internet.  But come on.  In case you haven't noticed, the world's problems are more complicated than "hey, what was that movie in the 80s where Brooke Shields and some guy were stranded on a desert island?" [Answer:  The Blue Lagoon.]

I guess it's no secret that this attitude pervades the tech industry, but I was still shocked at the comments reported by George Packer in this great New Yorker article about Silicon Valley's entree into politics.

Packer is warned early on by an industry insider that "Many [tech industry employees] see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses ... They actually think Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world's problems."

Packer tries to ask the people he meets why a rise in computer use and technology has coincided with an increase in a lot of problems and in particular with economic difficulties, why "during the decades of the personal computer and the Internet, the American economy has grown so slowly, average wages have stagnated, the middle class has been hollowed out, and inequality has surged." 

The responses:

"One young techie wondered if it was really true."

"Another said the problem was a shortage of trained software engineers."

"A third said that the focus of the tech industry was shifting from engineering to design, and suggested this would open up new job opportunities."

I'm sorry, but these are ridiculous.  Whatever you think about Packer's question, these responses reflect a level of myopia that would be surprising even in school-children. 

One major player at Facebook tells Packer that traditional measures of wealth might not be appropriate any more, since people might be choosing social gains over financial ones -- like extra time with friends.  The "real GDP" might be much higher than the one we're measuring.

Right.  Because if there's one thing we're hearing from average Americans, it's that they'd be happy with less money -- that playing charades with friends with the AC off is character-building, that taking 3 hour public transportation trips to work is like chicken soup for the soul, that as long as they have a friend to mush up their food, they don't really care about dental treatment. 

My students have noticed they can get things like news almost for free.  Their inference is not: "oh, guess I can get by with an easy low-paying job!"  Their inference is, "oh, guess I should cross 'journalist' off the list of jobs I might aim for." 

To prove his point that things are improving, this guy cites all the annoying things people had to deal with in the 90s and how those things are over.  Like all the things in Seinfeld.  He says that nearly all the annoyances that gave the show its jokes -- the time wasted trying to track down a friend, the inefficiencies that lead to ridiculous misunderstandings -- have been "kind of erased."  Yay for information technology!  Cell phones are cool!

Sorry -- but did this guy not notice that Seinfeld was a comedy?  A show people would watch to forget about their actual problems? 

I guess this guy watched Seinfeld and thought "Wow, poor Jerry, Elaine, and George -- they're stuck in a New Jersey parking garage for hours because they can't find one another.  They're lives are ruined.  If only they had cell phones, this tragedy could have been averted."  He was too distracted by the show to notice actual tragedies, like people dying in wars and from hunger and easily preventable diseases?

I'm not saying companies have to save the world.  I'm not talking about the responsibility of these people as employees.  I'm talking about their responsibilities as citizens, to know and care about what's going on with people who live differently from them.

What's more super double extra outrageous is that higher education administration is buying into the same myths -- and they're supposed to know better. 

I mean, gee, where might people learn to think critically and thoughtfully about the world around them?  Where they might learn the causes of inequality or why it matters and what's going on in the world and how people feel about the things in their lives?

Oh, right -- humanities and social science classrooms.  But hey, we can't be supporting those.  Too expensive, too subjective.  Also those people are so annoying, always criticizing everyone, crushing our buzz, talking about poverty and war and death.  Won't the university be nicer without them?

Then we can all relax and focus on the next big public-private partnership with the next big tech startup.  I heard Richard Branson wants to start private travel into space.  Those people are going to need a convenient way to order take-out, aren't they? Come on everyone, let's get on it!