Recently in Introspection Category

Do you really think money and time as support for art are finite resources? That seems so sad and defeatist to me, but it definitely explains why you didn't like Amanda Palmer's TED talk.


Are there not limited hours in a day, a month, a year, a life? Do most people not have to budget their money? And their time? Can you consume every piece of art available to you right now? Is a horse the new frisbee???

Seriously though. Of course all these resources are limited. To think otherwise is to live in a dreamland of privilege that will inevitably be punctured by a rude awakening. (Perhaps it will come when you have to attract an audience of your own to something that you put your whole soul into, in which case I'm sorry.)

Seriously, this is like the defining problem of my cultural experience over the past 5 years or so. How can anyone trying to keep up with culture possibly deny resource and attention scarcity? There are just so many options in so many mediums, both to experience/discover and to support with my (extremely limited) time and money. I don't know how many Kickstarters by friends and/or artists who I respect I have failed to back over the past few years, but it's a lot. And that's not even getting to any of the almost infinite amount of worthy stuff out there that I don't happen to already have a personal connection to.  

Which, I'm basically just not making personal connections to much new stuff anymore, because I'm completely overwhelmed by choice and perpetually months to years behind on checking out new records, games, movies, tv shows, books, etc. I effectively can't participate much in the broader cultural conversation anymore, because I don't have enough money, time, and mental bandwidth to keep up with the unrelenting stream of the new. Attention is the coin of the realm, and deflation has set in big time.

Is this a generational turnover thing? Are people who grew up with this unprecedented access to cultural superabundance just so used to it that they don't think about what they might be missing? Or, for us fogies, is it that once you get into your 30's, you begin to realize that your time is limited and precious and you can't do everything? I've realized that, but I don't think I've exactly accepted it.

This fascinating examination of Neoliberalism through the lens of the sanitization of European soccer supporter culture stirred up a lot of conflicts with me.

The piece is really long, and you should read it if you have any interest in European soccer or the cultural and economic state of things in France, but I'll sum it up for you for our purposes here. Basically, the deal here is that Paris Saint-Germain were a historically underperforming (both economically and results-wise) team in a huge market. Think, I dunno, the LA Clippers, but if they didn't have the excuse of the Lakers, since PSG are the only game in town for professional soccer in Paris.

So, they were underperforming, but had fervently loyal and organized working class supporter bases who kept them in business. But those supporter bases were problematic in a lot of ways, in that they were all-male, organized along racial lines, had issues with constant low-level violence inside the stadium, with occasional outbreaks outside the stadium and a few serious injuries and deaths, etc.

This is pretty standard stuff for supporter groups of soccer clubs in large European cities, but there are a lot of things about 20th-century style soccer supporter culture that give me hives. Part of it is that I'm an American, and just really can't grok intensely class-based organization and group identity like this. I may be a good social solidarity leftist, but this kind of thing sorta horrifies me in an Orwellian way:

The casuals and ultras of the earlier era had been able, in maintaining their anonymity, to suspend their individuality within the flow of the group, which became larger than the sum of its parts; in the concourses it was only in death that your personal, unique name was "spoken" by either being carved on a plaque or spraypainted on a wall. In Auteuil especially, individuality was intentionally sacrificed for the sake of the tifo, the show of spirit: to chant in unison, to hold the right card at the right time, to cover yourself with the giant banner stretching over the entire stand, to be a node forever preparing a response to stimulus from the capo.

Another part of it is that I'm a sheltered, effete upper-middle-class liberal who has never even been in a fight and just can't contemplate dealing with this sort of ugliness and danger in person. Finally, American sports, at least in the modern era, have been about individual, largely apolitical support from the start. I can't imagine dealing with organized violence, territoriality and chaos in the stands and on the streets, racist chants, an atmosphere overtly hostile to women and kids, and so on just to go to a Cubs game, or why anyone would want to.

Then again, I've certainly chafed a lot at the ever-increasing prices, and especially the ever-increasing security presence at American sporting events, a presence that often seems to be much more about enforcing the team's economic prerogatives (e.g., searching you to keep you from bringing in your own food) and even enforcing mass participation in officially sanctioned jingoistic exercises than about preventing violence.

Still, even if I deplore the methods used to suppress them (and those methods are a lot more harsh than the stuff that bugs me about American sporting events), I have a hard time mourning the loss or neutering of these racist / patriarchal / violent / etc. supporter cultures at first glance. I'm ok at the end of the day with using state and institutional violence to suppress organized racism and homophobia. I don't think we would have accomplished even what little we have on those fronts in America without the application or threat of organized violence by the state.

However, if you look into it a little more carefully, that's not quite what is going on here, which is why this piece is so interesting. That "enforcing of economic prerogatives" part is the key here. Basically, after tolerating this stuff for years and not really caring about it, PSG finally decided they wanted to spend big, attract an upper middle class crowd, and be the French Chelsea. They then used the excuse of a supporter who was killed in fighting between two fan groups (and a key tell here was that it was black-on-white violence, whereas the vast majority of the violence was historically going in the other direction) to clean house in a draconian way, and kick their working class support to the curb to make way for more well-heeled customers.

I've always had somewhat of a "give the devil his due" attitude about Neoliberalism on issues of tolerance and multiculturalism. I figure that the success of the women's rights and gay rights movements, among many other social advances over the past few decades, has a whole lot to do with the fact that multiculturalism and tolerance are good business, and that that fact probably guarantees more than anything that these changes will stick. If Neoliberalism and this round of globalization leave any good legacy to stand on, that will probably be it.

However, even this gets really problematic when you scratch the surface, and the case presented here shows exactly why. I always knew Neoliberals in power weren't supporting social liberalization out of the goodness of their hearts. But this lays bare the true cynicism at the bottom of their multiculturalism. They're using anti-racism and social liberalism as a way to divide people along class lines, and as a cudgel to force through their economic agenda. And they're not really even dealing with these race/gender/homophobia issues so much as dispersing them and pushing them out of sight of all the nice upper-middle-class people like me who can't quite bear to face them on a day-to-day basis. They're gentrifying the stadium, and clearing the field for officially sanctioned and more lucrative economic activity. They're also turning what was a contested public space into a fully private and relentlessly commercialized space.

But you only really see that if you stop to think about it, and you have to look past the undeniable local improvements. The experience at Parc de Princes for most everyone who isn't an Ultra was undeniably improved by these steps, and the de-organization of the violent and racist elements of the supporter groups is probably a social improvement, even if it does nothing to address the underlying social and cultural problems that such groups are a symptom of.

Similarly, the gentrification of the urban core of many American cities over the past couple of decades has certainly had many positive effects on them as places and spaces, and as someone who loves city life and is too much of a wuss to deal with the violence, chaos, and overt racism of the mid-century American city, I really have a hard time discounting those effects. 

But in the end, if you're going to be honest, you have to admit that both kinds of gentrification are mostly about pushing "problem" populations and behaviors to the margins and clearing safe spaces for privileged people to enjoy themselves and make money. You can still love and enjoy those spaces, but you can't in good conscience ignore their cost, and you especially can't take the easy way out by using them as a refuge and a cocoon from your complicity in socioeconomic problems, or an excuse to declare those problems as solved or on the mend.

These processes often aren't quite so overt in America, but we don't talk about any of these issues as overtly here to begin with, and class even less so than race. I've always had a problem with political correctness on these grounds. I think it works in much the same way as the processes described above. Just as PSG, the Premier League, and creative class gentrifiers have pushed aside the unsavory elements in their environments, so have we in our intellectual and cultural spheres. And again, there are undeniable local and atmospheric improvements as a result of this, but at the cost of class-based marginalization and stratification, based on the signifiers of the very injustices we claim to be fighting. We avoid immediate discomfort in this way, but more importantly and tragically, we avoid the hard and nasty generational work of grappling with the social and economic problems that underly that discomfort.

I don't have answers here. I'm just as complicit in this crap as anyone else. But it's important to notice once in awhile, and this made me notice, and make some important connections between my own pursuits and enjoyments, Neoliberalism, gentrification, and political correctness, all things that I'm deeply conflicted about and looking for answers to and ways forward from.

(link originally via dayan)

Philosophy and Social Hope

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To realise the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian. - Joseph Schumpeter

I had meant to write something about Richard Rorty when he died last month, but I wanted to re-read some things and really think about it first, and then other stuff came up, and suddenly weeks had gone by and it was no longer current. Yet another example of why I'm just not quite cut out for the pace of this medium. But, timely or no, it's still worth writing about, so I'll put this out there and see what happens.

It's fitting that when Richard Rorty died, I happened to be reading a book about William James. After all, it was Rorty who turned me on to James, and a host of other thinkers and ideas which ultimately helped to reconcile a lot of contradictions for me. Like him, I was an eager studen of philosophy, who, as time went on, became more and more suspicious of the validity and importance of many of the problems that philosophy concerns itself with. It all comes down to questions of aims: is the purpose of philosophy to attempt to solve a lot of interesting, but abstract and likely insoluble problems, or to figure out what the Good Life is and how to live it? Is philosophy (or knowledge in general) an end in itself, or a tool to help human beings to attain their own ends? He and I both fell firmly in the latter camps on those questions, and, well, that's just not what academic philosophy does for the most part these days.

Rorty's ideas came into my life at a pivotal time for me, in my last year of college. A friend in the political science department (naturally) loaned me her copy of Philosophy and Social Hope. At that time, I was trying to reconcile problems of disillusionment with the realities of both academic science (I had similar problems with it... an inability on the part of practicioners to put the work in a larger context and think ethically and practically about it, an at-times blindly dogmatic belief in something that is a human practice and thus subject to human failings, etc) and philosophy with a growing practical political urgency. Rorty, and the thinkers he led me to (James, Dewey, Kuhn, Davidson, West, etc, all of whom we certainly weren't reading in my undergrad philosophy dept) allowed me to realign all of those competing impulses in a new, flexible framework, and in many ways to get past the disillusionment and move on. Of course, like with him, moving on meant a self-imposed exile of sorts, because it turned out that philosophy and science weren't actually doing what I had thought they were going in. But, I'm very glad I figured that out when I did, instead of halfway into a Ph. D. somewhere.

My journey through academic philosophy and science taught me that what I was really interested in was politics, in one guise or another. Rorty, Dewey, and James' Pragmatism became the vital link between the two. What it does is is basically blow up a lot of those problems of philosophy that I thought were pointless:

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact  - Wm. James

What does it matter if we are brains in vats or if reality is truly "real?" Would either answer to the question change the way we live in practice? Either way we still have to interact with the reality we encounter, and if it's perceptually the same for a human or a brain in a vat, what possible difference can it make? It may be an interesting exercise, but it's meaningless.

Now, there has always been this current throughout the history of philosophy, away from abstraction and towards the human and the living of life. But it has always been sort of a black sheep faction, and lots of people who fall within this tradition, and who I consider to be important philosophers... the ethicists, eclecticists, humanists, romantics, doubters... thinkers like Aurelius, Montaigne, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Camus, Berlin, and Niebuhr, are pretty much dismissed by modern academic philosophy as lacking rigor and systematicness. Some of the Pre-Socratics and Hellenistic philosophers seem to get a pass on this, likely because they are Greek and old, and anything Greek and old has to be taken seriously, but they are still largely sidelined in favor the Platonic and Aristotelian dualities that have dominated Western philosophy since the beginning.

Though Hume was in many ways a prescient precursor, Utilitarianism and then Pragmatism were the first really concerted and enduring movements that attempted to get beyond the questions of Plato and Aristotle, to find a way to live without appealing to abstract absolutes or replacing God with some other idea as a surrogate-God. To me Pragmatism is postmodernism without all of the gobbledegook and despair. It is a humble admission of the complexity of our reality, the human origin of values and morals and ideas, and the contingency of truth.

In place of capital-T truth and eternal, nonhuman certainties, it offers hope, social hope embodied in human empathy and solidarity, the democratic process, and the possibility for change and a better future (in this emphasis, it differs from and improves upon Utilitarianism for me.)

In place of the fruitless quest for unity, it offers a celebration of the many, and an attempt to find tools to cope with and thrive among many-ness and complexity. In place of end states, it offers process. It admits that we are on our own in the universe, and that whatever becomes of the human experiment is wholly up to us and what we invent and how we choose. This is both terrifying and liberating. James again:

I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying 'no play! ... I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is. I can believe in the ideal as an ultimate, not as an origin, and as an extract, not the whole. When the cup is poured off, the dregs are left behind for ever, but the possibility of what is poured off is sweet enough to accept.

It is a very American philosophy, in many of the ways that I think America is or was unique and revolutionary and dynamic.

As for Rorty himself, aside from his major role as a gateway to all of those other ideas, I admired him for the unique space he carved out as an American public intellectual in the latter half of the 20th century. He was one of few current intellectual role models I could find who managed to combine the sort of sophisticated and skeptical understanding of truth, ideas, contingency, context, sociocultural phenomena, and so on, that makes the most sense to me philosophically with an old-fashioned and stubborn commitment to progressivism, solidarity, meliorism, democracy, and a solid, moderate, possibly achievable social democratic political vision. He admitted the relative validity of his convictions, and yet stood for them unflinchingly. He was able to be in uncertainty and complexity and yet refuse to be paralyzed or unmanned by it, or to take an easy out to avoid confronting it.

He feels like a rather sad example of a road-not-taken, both in American politics and academics. There aren't many classic old liberal/humanist public intellectuals like him left, and at least from within the academy, I don't see many more on the way. I wish he had won the argument instead of the rejectionist and puritanical Chomsky types politically, and the inwardly focused and disciplinarily narrow types academically, but it was a losing fight from the start, for reasons structural and institutional as much as ideological. I'm very glad and grateful he was still willing to fight it though, and I have great hopes that we on the American left may just be coming back around to his sort of practical, hopeful, incrementalist, and progressive vision of ourselves and our country after all.

On Uncertainty

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To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it. - Bertrand Russell

I've been thinking a lot lately about uncertainty. The past century, and more pointedly, our current world climate, is absolutely shot-through with it. It is the ideological elephant in the room... everyone is taking drastic measures to cope with it, all the while doing everything they can to avoid facing up to the thing itself. To me, Heisenberg's discovery may well be the most important, as well as the least assimilated idea of the last one hundred years. Philosophy has barely addressed it, and, more practically, we still haven't learned to deal with the realities that it opens up. I fear that until we do, we'll never be able to truly move on and live stably and peacably in the chaotic world we have created. In an uncertain time, we must embrace uncertainty on some level or consign ourselves to chaos and failure. So, what does Heisenberg mean, and why is it important? The gist, in scientific terms, is this:

The more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known.

Sounds simple, right? The implications are rather earth-shattering though. A little context: at the end of the 19th century, a strongly materialist, mechanistic worldview was beginning to come to the fore. Darwin had shown that, with little doubt, the laws of nature applied to us just as inexorably as they do to everything else. It was thought that the end of physics, and by extension the end of uncertainty, was within sight, and that the laws of the universe, soon to be fully known, would eventually allow us to predict the future, given enough information about the present.

This is a lot of what the 19th century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, were on about. Russia was in a bit of a unique situation, as it had traditionally been a feudal, spiritual, mystical sort of society, which had had the enlightenment and all of its implications suddenly thrust upon it by Czar Peter the Great. Even 150 years later, thoughtful people were still struggling to assimilate the contrasting worldviews, and to a Russian outlook shaped by this context, determinism was much more disturbing than it was to the average European intellectual at that time. Dostoevsky was horrified by rational self interest and the "Crystal Palace" of positivist thought because he (rightly) saw that if this worldview were totally true, it meant cutting out a large part of what makes us human; the loss of imagination, of spirituality, and ultimately, of freedom.

Tolstoy was more well-versed in western science, and in his younger years was a materialistic atheist. Later, he found it lacking, went through a nervous breakdown of sorts, and founded his own prophetic variant of Christianity. The great Russians were seekers, humanists in a grander sense of the word, in that they thought human imagination, belief, spirituality, and freedom in some way transcend cold reason and scientific certainty.

Of course, this wasn't merely a Russian phenomenon, though the Russians made the terms most clear in their work. European Romanticism in general, and the American variant, Transcendentalism, were also rebellions of the spirit and imagination against the rigor and limitations that science seemed to personify. Whitman's "When I heard a Learn'd Astronomer" is a representative example of what I'm getting at, and Thoreau's whole ouvre is the more practical, philosophical side of the same coin.

Looking back, late Victorian-era determinism was a very hubristic outlook, but at the time it all seemed fairly reasonable. Nothing much new was on the horizon, and existing theory worked for almost every practical situation that the physicists had encountered. This general belief in the inevitability of determinism and the approaching end of physics continued for quite awhile, but chinks started to gradually show up in its armor.

New, strange discoveries started to pop up, such as the Curies' work with radioactivity, and Roentgen's discovery of X-rays in the 1890's. Albert Einstein struck the first truly major blow, with general relativity. However, this was still compatible with an ordered, deterministic universe, it was simply a more subtle and complicated way of looking at it, which was easy enough to eventually assimilate with the old Newtonian views of motion (though not so easy to assimilate philosophically, a predicament which arguably helped in the rise of relativist postmodernism in the stead of the one-way, natural-law-centric path of logical positivism.) However, it was Heisenberg and his fellow discoverers of quantumn mechanics who would truly throw physics (and who should have also thrown philosophy) into disarray.

Basically, Heisenberg's discovery removed the spectre of determinism from the scene once and for all. Free will was vouchsafed forever, by a strange quirk in the measurability of subatomic particles. Since we could never know both the momentum and the position of a particle at the same time, the best we could do was a probability-based guess at where the particle might be at the next measurement. Thus, we would never be able to get all the information required to absolutely predict the future of complex systems (such as consciousness or history) and remove the human conception of free will from the equation of choice.

Paradoxically, uncertainty had saved human freedom, and perhaps human spirituality, once and for all. We could never know absolutely, and thus there would always be a chance for novelty, variation, imagination. This should have been occasion for rejoicing. Nature had provided a way out, a way to reconcile Romanticism with Positivism, art with science, reason with emotion, human-centric conceptions of the universe with observable reality, and without giving up either one entirely.

However, it didn't quite work out that way, and I'm not exactly sure why. There was definitely something deeply disturbing to both camps about there being a fundamental randomness or ineffability at the heart of reality. This is an old idea, and, instructively, things shook out in a similar fashion the last time it came up.

Way back in Hellenistic Greece, Epicurus (picking up where Democritus left off) postulated a universe made up of atoms falling through a void, with life, action, and choice made possible by a randomness inherent in some of the atoms, which he called "The Swerve." This conception eventually lost out to the Platonic and Aristotelian visions, which roughly approximate the later idealist Romantics and realist Positivists.

On the scientific side, the reason for tumult and denial was fairly obvious, best exemplified in Einstein's famous "God does not play dice" quip. An ordered and predictable universe was the bedrock principle upon which all research rested. For the Romantic or spiritual side, it was probably more diffuse... perhaps for some just a failure to understand the significance and implications of the discovery, for others an aesthetic distaste for a "flawed," imperfect reality (hearkening back to the desire for perfect Platonic ideals), for the more spiritually minded, some thorny clashes with accepted dogma (though to me, quantum uncertainty is one of those things in science that is so weird that it almost makes the idea of God, or at least some sort of distributed universal guiding intelligence, sound plausible, because this somehow happening on its own, and also just coincidentally turning out to be a backdoor for the preservation of our ideas of free will and inquiring intelligence, is just plain wacky.)

After the old generation of Newtonians had died off, science managed to assimilate uncertainty into its worldview rather readily, if not very completely (the main problem in physics to this day is the attempt to find a reconciliation between quantumn mechanics and Newtonian/relativistic mechanics.) Taking off from Popper and Kuhn, science studies even managed to produce a new worldview in which science wasn't an infallible religion, but rather just another way of looking at the world, subject to the same sort of limitations of the rest of our constructs, albeit one which is quite useful for many of our purposes. However, philosophy and literature seemingly failed here. At any rate, nobody I've read has ever really managed to philosophically address both relativity and uncertainty, in terms of knowledge, ideas, choice, and existence, in a satisfying way.

Camus and Kierkegaard came close to what I'm getting at, but ultimately backed off. They both posited the absurd as man's reaction to uncertainty. Kierkegaard looked at the leap of faith, the embracing of God despite the lack of proof, as the absurd man's reaction to an uncertain world. Camus went a step farther, abandoning God and embracing the absurd in of itself, in the form of the struggle to know and create, regardless of its ultimate futility in terms of ever being able to attain absolute certainty or permanence. Neither went so far as to question the very desire for certainty that they were trying to deal with.

Pragmatism and other forms of postmodern thought, with greater or lesser degrees of success, embraced relativism and attacked the problem by using it in attempt to eliminate the idea of certainty altogether, an approach I embrace, though with reservations.

I don't think any of them really attack it from the angle I prefer though, in which uncertainty serves to empower human beings to write their own narratives. This is sort of a synthesis of Existential and Pragmatic/Postmodernist thought, and does show up somewhat, though obliquely, in the postmodern fiction of Eco, Nabokov, and Borges. I don't think we should abandon the idea of certainty altogether, but we should treat it as exactly that, as one way at looking at things, as an ideal, human-imposed benchmark from which we can measure the deviation of reality, much as scientists already use ideal systems as a tool in order to better understand more chaotic real ones.

The key is to acknowledge uncertainty, to even praise it as a necessary prerequisite for a good human life. Without uncertainty, there would be very little in the way of possibility, wonder, or discovery, and of course, no freedom, no choice, no autonomy. The search for knowledge and understanding consumes us, and we tell ourselves that we want it to end with complete certainty, but have we really thought that desire through? What would we do if there was nothing more to strive for, nothing more to learn... if there were no more suprises?

I think despair and gradual mass suicide would be the more likely outcome in that case, as opposed to the usual claptrap about perpetual contented bliss. Human beings don't deal very well with stasis and contentment in large doses. We need to struggle, to grope blindly in the dark, to be thrilled and awed once in awhile. We may be rational animals, but I don't think we're by any means wholly rational, or that we should ever want to be. Uncertainty, both in terms of physics and philosophy, guarantees that we will never have to face such a difficult ultimate choice, to have to choose between the human heart and the human mind. And because of that, the associated slings and arrows are ultimately worth it.

Russell was right. If philosophy and literature have taught me anything, it's the ability to be comfortable with, and at times to even revel in uncertainty. This is of course much easier when it comes to abstract matters, but enough of the temperament carries over to everyday life that I am willing to accept more risks and unknowns than most in trade for the possibilities these realities open up. As a global society, I feel strongly that we need to take a similar approach, both in terms of our ideas and beliefs, and in terms of our more concrete social and political realities.

We may not have certainty about many of the big questions, but life would be infinitely less rich if we did. The joy is in the search, even if the ultimate and complete solution is actually foreordained by the subatomic structure of the universe to be elusive. This is the first, and perhaps the only, lesson of philosophy.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Introspection category.

Heroes is the previous category.

Narrative is the next category.

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