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Posts Tagged ‘culture

“Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits”*…

The School of Athens (1509–1511) by Raphael, depicting famous classical Greek philosophers

Helena de Bres on what philosophy can– and can’t– help us understand about the meaning of life…

… It’s not always clear what the average person is after when seeking life guidance from philosophers, but it tends to be a mix of three things. First, some general orientation in the universe; second, a serving of existential consolation for when life fucks us over; and, more rarely, a dose of specific practical advice (to text back or not to text back?)

The easy reply to the last of those requests is that philosophy can supply at best only part of the answer. How someone should respond to a particular situation depends on facts about the world that we philosophers have no special expertise in… so we can’t pronounce on the question solo.

The more socially uncomfortable reply is that the demand that philosophy be personally helpful, in any of these three ways, sounds wrongheaded to someone with the training of a mainstream contemporary philosopher. Saying that aloud involves accusing a fellow human who’s having a life crisis of being naïve, which is an asshole move I try to avoid. But I do think it, because pretty much the last thing I saw myself as acquiring while I skilled up in graduate school was transferable expertise in how to deal with everyday life, on either the grand or the intimate scale…

Science has practical applications, but to true devotees the applications aren’t the main point, and attempting to go straight to them is likely to backfire. Seeking direct life guidance or swift consolation from philosophy is similarly risky, for similar reasons. Bernard Williams writes in his essay “On Hating and Despising Philosophy” that, though philosophy can be pressing, it doesn’t get there “by instantly addressing the urgent and the deep.” That results in mere superficiality, intellectual kitsch. Being genuinely helpful usually requires being truthful, and because the issues philosophy addresses are complex and difficult, the search for the truth about them should start in the foothills and inch up cautiously. A truthful philosophy will be unspectacular and inaccessible to the average person as it proceeds. And if philosophy does eventually generate good life advice, there’s no guarantee it’ll deliver comfort along with it. Truth can be a bitch…

Academic philosophy and the meaning of life: “Help!,” from @helenadebres in @the_point_mag. Part one of a four-part series (it gets less bleak :). Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

* William James

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As we search, we might wish a Joyeux Anniversaire to a philosopher whose practice was robustly practical: Denis Diderot, contributor to and the chief editor of the Encyclopédie (“All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.”)– and thus towering figure in the Enlightenment; he was born on this date in 1713.  Diderot was also a novelist (e.g., Jacques le fataliste et son maître [Jacques the Fatalist and his Master])…  and no mean epigramist:

From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.

We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.

Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it.

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October 5, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Take this job and shove it”*…

Chauncey Hare, “Self Portrait at EPA” (1980)

Chauncey Hare hated his job, so he captured the drudgery of office life in order to protest it…

Photography started as a hobby for Chauncey Hare. For 27 years, he worked as a chemical engineer at the Standard Oil Company of California, using his camera to escape the tedium of the office. By 1977, he couldn’t take it anymore. But before he declared himself a “corporate dropout” and committed to art full-time, Hare trained his camera on the world he hoped to leave behind…

“Head of Female Worker Seen Over Office Cubicle, Standard Oil Company of California” (1976–77)
“Office worker seated at a desk, ‘Standard Oil Company of California refinery, Richmond, California’” (1976-77)

Paradoxically, the same medium that once served as a respite from the banality of Hare’s professional life soon came to feel oppressive in its own right. In Quitting Your Day Job, a forthcoming critical biography of Hare, the scholar Robert Slifkin connects Hare’s sly, arresting portraiture to the artist’s critiques of capitalist power structures, including the cultural institutions that embraced him. (Hare won three Guggenheim fellowships, an honor shared only by Ansel Adams and Walker Evans.) The photographer went on to disavow “official art” and accept a part-time job at the Environmental Protection Agency to support himself. A self-portrait from that time [the photo at the top]shows Hare back in an office environment, where a poster hanging on a cubicle wall poses a question that its surroundings implicitly answer: What’s bugging you? By 1985, Hare had given up photography altogether and become a therapist specializing in “work abuse.”…

More of Hare’s remarkable work, and of his equally-remarkable story, at “Under the Fluorescent Lights,” by Hannah Giorgis. See also “These Photographs Were Made in Protest.”

* songwriter David Allan Coe (made famous in a recording by Johnny Paycheck)

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As we gag at our gigs, we might recall that it was on this date in 1911 that the first motion picture “stunt man” was hired, when Lt. Henry “Hap” Arnold, a pioneer military pilot, was brought onto director William J. Humphrey‘s production of The Military Air-Scout to do stunt flying for the film; the two-reeler was released the following December.

Lt. Arnold went on to become an Army General (head of the Army Air Corps) and then the commanding general of the U.S. Air Force; he remains the only person every to hold a five-star rank in two different U.S. military services. On retirement, he helped found both Project RAND, which evolved into one of the world’s largest non-profit global policy think tanks, the RAND Corporation, and Pan American World Airways.

“Hap” Arnold, stunt pilot

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September 30, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation”*…

… and happily that prospect may be more likely than we’d been led to believe in works like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone

Despite widespread worries that the social fabric is disintegrating, data from the American Psychological Association shows that since the 1950s, cooperation between strangers has steadily increased in the United States.

“We were surprised by our findings that Americans became more cooperative over the last six decades because many people believe U.S. society is becoming less socially connected, less trusting, and less committed to the common good,” said lead researcher Yu Kou, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at Beijing Normal University. “Greater cooperation within and between societies may help us tackle global challenges, such as responses to pandemics, climate change, and immigrant crises.”

Over 63,000 people participated in 511 studies that were carried out in the US between 1956 and 2017 that were analyzed by the researchers. These studies included lab tests that evaluated strangers’ cooperation. The study was recently published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

The study discovered a slight, gradual rise in collaboration over the period of 61 years…

Good News: Cooperation Among Strangers Has Increased for the Past 60 Years.” The full study is here.

* Bertrand Russell

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As we bowl together, we might recall that any improvement on cooperation is on a base that’s not too high: it was on this date in 1957 that nine Black students, having been denied entrance to Little Rock, Arkansas’ Central High School (in defiance of a 1954 Supreme Court ruling), were escorted to school by soldiers of the Airborne Battle Group of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Two days earlier the Black students had faced an angry mob of over 1,000 Whites in front of Central High School who were protesting the integration project; as the students were escorted inside by the Little Rock police (supporting national Guard troops), violence escalated, and they were removed from the school. President Eisenhower responded by calling in the regular Army.

Elizabeth Eckford attempts to enter Central High on September 4, 1957

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September 25, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Material progress does not merely fail to relieve poverty, it actually produces it. This association of progress with poverty is the great enigma of our times. It is the riddle that the sphinx of fate puts to our civilization. And which NOT to answer is to be destroyed.”*…

John Burn-Murdoch brings the data…

Where would you rather live? A society where the rich are extraordinarily rich and the poor are very poor, or one where the rich are merely very well off but even those on the lowest incomes also enjoy a decent standard of living?

For all but the most ardent free-market libertarians, the answer would be the latter. Research has consistently shown that while most people express a desire for some distance between top and bottom, they would rather live in considerably more equal societies than they do at present. Many would even opt for the more egalitarian society if the overall pie was smaller than in a less equal one.

On this basis, it follows that one good way to evaluate which countries are better places to live than others is to ask: is life good for everyone there, or is it only good for rich people?

To find the answer, we can look at how people at different points on the income distribution compare to their peers elsewhere. If you’re a proud Brit or American, you may want to look away now…

To be clear, the US data show that both broad-based growth and the equal distribution of its proceeds matter for wellbeing. Five years of healthy pre-pandemic growth in US living standards across the distribution lifted all boats, a trend that was conspicuously absent in the UK.

But redistributing the gains more evenly would have a far more transformative impact on quality of life for millions. The growth spurt boosted incomes of the bottom decile of US households by roughly an extra 10 per cent. But transpose Norway’s inequality gradient on to the US, and the poorest decile of Americans would be a further 40 per cent better off while the top decile would remain richer than the top of almost every other country on the planet.

Our leaders are of course right to target economic growth, but to wave away concerns about the distribution of a decent standard of living — which is what income inequality essentially measures — is to be disinterested in the lives of millions. Until those gradients are made less steep, the UK and US will remain poor societies with pockets of rich people…

Britain and the US are poor societies with some very rich people,” from @jburnmurdoch.

For a different (but not altogether contrary) perspective, see Noah Smith (@Noahpinion): “No, the U.S. is not “a poor society with some very rich people” (“We’re a rich society with some very poor people…”)

For an authoritative (and fascinating) account of how we got here: “Our Ancestors Thought We’d Build an Economic Paradise. Instead We Got 2022,” from @delong, adapted from his terrific new book, Slouching Toward Utopia.

Henry George, Progress and Poverty (whose point seems to accrue whether one comes down with Burn-Murdoch or with Smith…)

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As we ponder progress, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that Americans met The Jetsons; the animated series premiered on ABC (the first color series on the network). The show was scheduled opposite Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Dennis the Menace and didn’t receive much attention; it was cancelled after one season and moved to Saturday mornings, where it was very successful.

Apart from flying cars and outer-space dwellings, much of the technology of The Jetsons has become commonplace: people now communicate via video chat on flat screens; domestic robots (like Roomba) are widespread, and various high-tech devices are the instruments of our leisure. But The Jetsons broader portrayal of life is still far from commonplace: while its world is one in which capitalism and entrepreneurship still exist and technology has not changed fundamental elements of human nature, it posits social advances (e.g., George Jetson works an hour a day, two days a week) that haven’t accrued and a society– no people of color, no working mothers, no single parents, no gay marriage, no poverty– that seem (to put it politely) quaint. Still, Smithsonian‘s Matt Novak, in an article called “Why The Show Still Matters” argues, “Today The Jetsons stands as the single most important piece of 20th century futurism… It’s easy for some people to dismiss The Jetsons as just a TV show, and a lowly cartoon at that. But this little show—for better and for worse—has had a profound impact on the way that Americans think and talk about the future.”

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And we might agree with  Andrew Womack (@Womack) and Rosecrans Baldwin (@rosecrans) that “it is a special pleasure to link this year after year: “it’s decorative gourd season, motherf*ckers.”

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 23, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do”*…

André Forget with an appreciation of an all-too-timely classic…

One hundred years ago, a young American journalist named Walter Lippmann published a book called Public Opinion. Though it is one of the most important books of the twentieth century and still acknowledged as a foundational text in the study of social psychology, media, and propaganda, its centenary has passed, for the most part, unacknowledged. This is ironic, because its central question—put simply, “How can a truly self-governing society function under the conditions of ‘mass culture’?”—has rarely been more relevant. Our current debates about disinformation and the pernicious effects of social media could be rather more productive if the participants would bother to read Lippmann—not because Lippmann provides any workable solutions, but because his analysis of the extent of the problem is so clear-eyed.

Lippmann’s book stands as the first attempt to comprehensively explain how individual psychology, political and social movements, and the mass media both create and unravel shared experiences of reality. The argument he lays out is fairly straightforward: Most of what we think we know about the world has been filtered down to us through external sources, and this information creates a sort of mental map, a collection of simplified representations of the world that help us navigate it more effectively. Inevitably, the accuracy and detail of our maps is directly related to our individual needs and interests—my mental map, for example, contains a great deal of information about Canadian literature, and almost none about how my computer works—but even the things we think we know are mostly just agglomerations of facts we’ve taken on trust from people and institutions relaying them at second- or third-hand. My confidence in saying that reality as I understand it corresponds to the real environment around me is a barometer of my faith in the sources of my information.

The mental maps we carry in our heads determine how we will act in the world, though they will not determine the outcomes of our actions. If I believe that Alaska has white sand beaches, I might book a holiday in Anchorage, but I will probably be disappointed after I arrive. While personal experience can help us correct misconceptions, not everyone can have personal experience of everything that affects their life, so the more abstracted from our personal experience a problem becomes, the more we will need to rely on the guidance and expertise of others. But these guides and experts are also finite individuals who must rely, in turn, on guidance and expertise from other sources, and the information they provide is shaded by their own prejudices and interests, as well as the inevitable distortions and elisions involved in any process of simplification and transmission…

If Lippmann is basically right—and it seems difficult, then as now, to argue that he isn’t—then the implications for democracy are troubling. When we invoke the rule of “the people,” we are invoking an abstraction, because the public body is in fact made up of an endless array of sets and classes and interests, cultivated and then pandered to by opinion-mongers and press barons who inflame the worst impulses of their audiences in order to create a steady market for their content. This is the opposite of the sort of feverish conspiracy about how the press works that cranks of all kinds have stipulated. If there is a larger purpose at work, it is generally of the most venal sort, often directed by nothing more than the need to present an opinion opposite to that of one’s competitor. If you squint, something like consensus may emerge during one moment of crisis or another, but it is usually illusory, and always fleeting.

Arguments about the relationship between freedom and information are present in the founding of modern democracy. A decade before the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Britain, the rebel John Adams had argued that “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” But the president John Adams sang a different tune when “general knowledge” became a threat to his administration. Seen from a certain angle, the Sedition Act of 1798 is the U.S. government’s first attempt to combat disinformation. The relationship between a truly free press and functional democratic government has been strained from the beginning, and if the tension between the two seemed particularly fraught in Lippmann’s age, it wasn’t for the first or the last time…

Walter Lippmann’s seminal work identified a fundamental problem for modern democratic society that remains as pressing—and intractable—as ever: “Public Opinion at 100,” from @ayforget in @BulwarkOnline. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion

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As we contemplate civil discourse, we might recall that it was on this date in 1897 that The (New York) Sun ran an editorial entitled “Is There a Santa Claus?”  Written by Francis Pharcellus Church in response to a letter from 8 year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, it is now remembered best by one of its lines: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

200px-Yes,Virginia,ThereIsASantaClausClipping

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