Years ago – I think I was in on a high school field trip to New York City – I stumbled upon and bought a calendar illustrated by Lynda Barry and another woman cartoonist, that resembled this one. It featured amazing illustrations such as Elvis With Ponytails and most days were annotated with astrological insights and ‘on this day’ birth dates of writers and musicians that Barry loved.
I’ve always wanted to make my own version of the Lynda Barry Experience Calendar and every year, I make a couple half-hearted attempt to collect ‘on this day’ facts for my future calendar. Today, as I was organizing my Google Drive, I stumbled upon a spreadsheet where I started to collect calendar-worthy facts. Before I put it in a directory, I thought I would add an entry for today.
This is how I discovered that today is a day of Alexandrias.
I don’t know whether AOC was named after the Blessed Alexandria. Curious, I looked her up and learned that the Blessed Alexandria was not a saint (I thought only saints had feast days) but is considered as something that is new to me: a victim soul.
The concept of the victim soul derives from the Roman Catholic teaching on redemptive suffering. Such a person is said to be one chosen by God to suffer more than most people during life, and who generously accepts the suffering, based on the example of Christ’s own Passion.
At 14 years old, in March 1918 an incident changed her life. Her former employer along with two other men tried to break into her room. To escape them, Alexandrina jumped 13 feet down from a window, barely surviving. Her spine was broken from the fall. Until age 19, Alexandrina was still able to “drag herself” to church where, hunched over, she would remain in prayer, to the great amazement of the parishioners. During the early years, Alexandrina asked the Blessed Mother for the grace of a cure. She suffered gradual paralysis that confined her to bed from 1925 onward. She remained bed-ridden for about 30 years.
A group of Mennonite women suffer for years from mysterious midnight attacks, purportedly the work of demons come to punish them for their sins. Eventually, they discover the assaults are not the work of demons but of men—their own husbands, sons, and neighbors. While the men are held in a nearby city, working to make bail, the women gather in a hayloft to talk, and to decide what to do. They propose three options: do nothing, leave, or stay and fight. The book takes the form of notes from those meetings, taken by the only man they trust, August Epp. The format ventures towards tedium, but miraculously never gets there, and through August’s perspective manages to be both damning and dazzlingly hopeful. At one point, the old man whose hayloft they are squatting wanders over and demands to know what’s going on. “We’re only women talking,” replies one of the women. Indeed.
Do I have to tell you that her novel was an imaged response to real events?
Between 2005 and 2009 in an isolated Mennonite colony in Bolivia, women and girls (as young as 3) regularly woke up groggy and bruised, their sheets smeared with blood and semen. Some members of the conservative patriarchal community blamed demons; others attributed these reports to “wild female imagination.” In reality, nine men in the close-knit community had been breaking into houses every few nights, spraying the sleeping inhabitants with a drug designed to anesthetize cattle and raping them while they lay unconscious.
I’m slowly making my way through Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women. I had to admit, I had skimmed a not insignificant amount of the first two chapters of the 1991 anthology of Haraway’s early works because I wasn’t particularly interested in Haraway’s close examination of early primate research.
Part of remaking ourselves as socialist-feminist human beings is remaking the sciences which construct the category of “nature” and empower its definitions in technology. Science is about knowledge and power. In our time, natural science defines the human being’s place in nature and history and provides the instruments of domination of the body and the community. By constructing the category nature, natural science imposes limits on history and self-formation. So science is part of the struggle over the nature of our lives. I would like to investigate how the field of modern biology constructs theories about the body and community as capitalist and patriarchal machine and market: the machine for production, the market for exchange, and both machine and market for reproduction. I would like to explore biology as an aspect of the reproduction of capitalist social relations, dealing with the imperative of biological reproduction. That is, I want to show how sociobiology is the science of capitalist reproduction.
Between World War I and the present, biology has been transformed from a science centered on the organism, understood in functionalist terms, to a science studying automated technological devices, understood in terms of cybernetic systems. Organic form, with its hierarchical and physiological cooperation and competition based on “natural” domination and division of labor, gave way to systems theory with its control schemes based on communications networks and a logical technology in which human beings become potentially outmoded symbol-using devices. Life science moved from physiology to systems theory, from scientific medicine to investment management, from Taylorite scientific management and human engineering of the person to modern ergonomics and population control, from psychobiology to sociobiology.
This fundamental change in life science did not occur in an historical vacuum; it accompanied changes in the nature and technology of power, within a continuing dynamic of capitalist reproduction. This paper will only sketch those changes, in an effort to investigate the historical connection between the content of science and its social context.
In this paper, Haraway compares and contrast the biological research work of chimpanzee-studying psychologist Robert Yerkes and ant-studying “father of sociobiology” E.O. Wilson as a means to show the “transformation of biology from a science of sexual organisms to one of reproducing genetic assemblages”.
But there’s another reason why I want to give the attention needed to Haaway’s work. It feels timely again.
Some months ago at the library where I work as a librarian, one of the library staff told me that there were several requests for the library to get a copy of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I did some cursory research and found that it was a New York Times Bestseller from an Isreali academic.
And then I dug further to find out why a broad overview of the history of humanity was on the best seller list and found out that the works of Harari are adored by the CEOs of Silicon Valley:
Less than a decade ago, Yuval Noah Harari was a junior professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, stuck teaching a world history survey course because none of the senior faculty would deign to take it on. Today, he’s listened to and praised by the likes of Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, who reviewed Harari’s latest book on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Harari speaks at the World Economic Forum at Davos, TED, and TimesTalks. At the time of this writing, his books occupied the top two slots on the New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list… And it’s all due to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a book based on that survey course that no one else wanted to teach—a book that has leapt far beyond the original audience for which Harari intended it and has been embraced by the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
Another foundational idea in Harari’s take on history is that “fiction” is the superpower that has enabled homo sapiens to access unprecedented power over other species. The other primates can’t manage stable communities of more than about 150 members. But following what Harari calls “the Cognitive Revolution”—marked by the development of language—“large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.” It isn’t merely our big brains or our opposable thumbs that have made us the emperors of the planet; it’s our ability to work together en masse, mobilized by shared beliefs
Is this why Mark Zuckerberg was such a massive booster of Sapiens when it first came out? Is it because its premise that human civilization is dependent on story-telling is deeply attractive to those industries involved in creating movies, memes, and advertising platforms?
Zuckerberg explains his latest book-club pick on his personal Facebook page: This book is a big history narrative of human civilization — from how we developed from hunter-gatherers early on to how we organize our society and economy today.
Or is it because the men involved in Silicon Valley are highly invested in a particular telling of the story of sociobiology. From Laura Miller’s Slate review:
This idea isn’t new; sociobiologists like Edward O. Wilson have often characterized religion as a fiction that creates advantageous social unity. But this argument often goes hand in hand with a macho strain of atheism and evolutionary psychology that trumpets both the obsolescence of faith in the age of science and an exaggerated focus on “selfish gene” scenarios in which a ruthless competition underlies every aspect of human existence. An even cruder version of the same attitude can be found in online communities of incels, pickup artists, MGTOWs, and other alienated men, with their pseudoscientific mythos of alpha and beta males and the women who will or won’t sleep with them.
In a Harari twist, Sapiens inverts evolutionary psychology’s usual fetishization of raw male dominance by stating that “even among chimpanzees, the alpha male wins his position by building a stable coalition with other males and females, not through mindless violence.” The pervasiveness of patriarchy among human cultures he regards as an enduring puzzle: “How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer.”
Injustice should not simply be accepted as “the way things are.” This is the starting point for The Xenofeminist Manifesto, a radical attempt to articulate a feminism fit for the twenty-first century.
Unafraid of exploring the potentials of technology, both its tyrannical and emancipatory possibilities, the manifesto seeks to uproot forces of repression that have come to seem inevitable—from the family, to the body, to the idea of gender itself.
The XF manifesto itself is not long – its just over 4000 words – but the text is dense, layered, cryptic, and poetic.
Xenofeminism indexes the desire to construct an alien future with a triumphant X on a mobile map. This X does not mark a destination. It is the insertion of a topological-keyframe for the formation of a new logic. In affirming a future untethered to the repetition of the present, we militate for ampliative capacities, for spaces of freedom with a richer geometry than the aisle, the assembly line, and the feed. We need new affordances of perception and action unblinkered by naturalised identities. In the name of feminism, ‘Nature’ shall no longer be a refuge of injustice, or a basis for any political justification whatsoever!
Is xenofeminism a programme? Not if this means anything so crude as a recipe, or a single-purpose tool by which a determinate problem is solved. We prefer to think like the schemer or lisper, who seeks to construct a new language in which the problem at hand is immersed, so that solutions for it, and for any number of related problems, might unfurl with ease.
When I first read the text over, I completely glossed over the fact that Lisp and Scheme are computing languages, and so when the question is asked, is xenofeminism a programme, the question also raised is, is xenofeminism a program? And — what does it mean to think like the schemer or lisper? At the 48 minute mark of General Intellect Unit’s episode 028 (Xenofeminism, Part 2) was the explanation I needed:
Now this is a reference to the Lisp family of programming languages of which Scheme is a member and that the gist of why that’s important is that, if you are a programmer and you are presented with a problem, like, I dunno, taking a bunch of .csv files and sending them where ever, if you are using a language like Python then you sort of sit down and write Python that solves the problem. with Lisp or Scheme or languages from this family, these languages are so flexible that what you end up actually doing is you create a sublanguage where you can express the problem, then you use that to solve the problem. So, it’s a kind of classic thing about Lispers is that they end up writing their own languages that fit the problem domain and then solve the problem using that second tool.
“To think like a schemer or lisper” is never going to be a metaphor that is going to be widely understood or adopted, but it’s a powerful concept nonetheless. And I think I found a great example of this approach.
How do we build joyful futures? Who gets to imagine and invent them? And what can hacking a Breast Pump teach us about designing for equity?
Many narratives about innovation and progress center the “lone genius” and his or her (usually his) ambitions to change the world with a singular, visionary idea. But this is not how radically better futures are imagined and created—instead, they are created in community, often unrecognized and unsupported by institutions that broadcast visions of the future. As a technology designer at the MIT Media Lab, I challenge my institution to consider: whose voices must be centered in our innovation spaces to imagine and build many possible utopias and preferable futures?
I will share what my team is doing to change how institutions like ours undertake “innovation work.” In particular, we reimagine the hackathon—a staple in technology design spaces—to center equity and inclusion, focus on marginalized and stigmatized topics, value non-technical skills, and ask technologists to contend with systemic and policy issues. I’ll share the work that goes into organizing large-scale, inclusive community innovation events, lessons learned from the ways that we messed up and changed course, and where we’re headed next.
It’s not enough to gather a diverse group of people, expecting them to magically arrive at a radically better future. In fact, doing so is likely to surface tensions. Bringing people together to design for equity requires cultivating a spirit of joy and play, which helps people and institutions build relationships across lines of difference. Approaching this work with a generative spirit, and prioritizing the comfort of people who have been made to feel unwelcome in innovation spaces, are key to both community-building and creative problem-solving. Joy and play act as strategies of resistance in toxic times — they help restore us so that we can do the difficult and creative work of tackling systemic problems, together.
In other words, Alexis and her team took the time to learn the full nature of a problem domain, built a community with those already in that space, and only then began to write the language of the program/programme to find the ways to address the problem.
I’m not sure Laboria Cuboniks would agree but this sounds XF to me.
For reasons I don’t quite understand, there is a part of myself that takes note every time I come across a story about the mental health cost of being a YouTube celebrity. I don’t understand fully why this particular topic fascinates me so because I don’t even know who are the most popular YouTubers even are. While I do have a small set of subscriptions on YouTube, they tend to be of explainers and not personalities.
And yet I am persistently worried about the mental health of the YouTube celebrity.
If you don’t quite understand what YouTube can do to someone’s mental health, I recommend this episode of Reply All called #125 All My Pets.
Taylor Nicole Dean was a self-described shut-in, a teenager who lived in her parents’ home, surrounded by exotic pets. And then she started making videos on YouTube.
All My Pets is an extraordinary episode because the story is largely straight exposition. Reporter Sruthi Pinnamaneni didn’t have to infer what changes can happen to a young person who suddenly has an audience of millions – she had the good instincts and luck to capture that transition and she lets the story speak for itself.
My daughter follows several YouTube channels, which are mostly let’s plays of Minecraft and Roblox. To respect her privacy, I won’t name them – but I can tell you that the creator of one channel has been known to take breaks from producing their channel for their mental health and has even taken time off producing their channel so that they could directly help/support another YouTuber going through a mental health crisis.
I’m only going to address mental stresses for YouTube creators in broad strokes because I’m more personally interested in the mental health of the audience than the creators of YouTube channels, but I believe that if you have watched your share of YouTube channels, you will hear YouTubers allude to some of these problems.
The most prevalent problem I have heard from my self-aware and self-reflecting YouTubers have mentioned, is the constant struggle balancing producing content that is good – that being, material that is experimental and interesting to the creator – with producing content that is familiar, well-trod, and already known to be popular. I have a feeling that if I was more well-versed with YouTube I would know the name of this particular genre of video.
Another example I can personally draw from is from the Cool Ghosts channel, which one could call a video-game based spin-off from good people who make the Sit Down and Shut Up board game channel, except that the creators wanted to make something much more experimental.
Cool Ghosts moved from being a recognizable video game review channel (although one in which every game was described as ‘the best game ever’) to one that took the format of a TV show from Hell. During one such episode, they reviewed the game, Passpartout: The Starving Artist, which provides another perspective on the challenges of making art for work and the danger of growing a contempt for your audience.
Algorithm-led content curation makes creators feel disposable, challenging them to churn out videos in the knowledge that there are younger, fresher people waiting in the wings to replace them. For YouTubers who use their daily lives as raw material for their videos, there is added pressure, as the traditional barriers between personal and professional life are irreparably eroded.
At a recent party at a conference for YouTubers and streamers, Hourigan was standing with a group of YouTubers when he quipped: “I think every YouTube career should come with a coupon for a free therapist.” Everybody laughed, he recalls, but “in a sad way”.
“By the way,” he adds, “I’m medicated and have a therapist.”
My favourite advice for YouTubers suffering from existential angst of being so close to their creations, comes from Hank Green who tells YouTubers todiversify your identity:
Find ways to value yourself outside of the metrics of social media. That might be how you feel about your creations. It might be a small community of talented people that you respect and are part of. It might be classmates or colleagues. And, if at all possible, invest in your identity as part of your communities and families. Value your life as a sibling, a child, a parent, and/or a spouse. Value your life as a member of your town or city or neighborhood. Value yourself outside of your creations.
Searching for meaning in attention and influence is excellent fuel for ambition, but life is long and this is not the only job you will ever have. It is not the only reason you matter and it is not the only gift you bring to the world.
I also strenuously recommend this video because Leighton Gray not only draws on her own mental health breakdown related to her creative work – which one could surmise was partially brought on from the extraordinary expectations that was placed on her by fans and by herself – she also shares what she has learned by looking at the systematic problems of social media that are borne by creators and audience members, alike.
It was because of Gray’s video that I learned of the concept of parasocial relationships:
Parasocial interaction (PSI) is a term coined by Horton and Wohl in 1956 to refer to a kind of psychological relationship experienced by an audience in their mediated encounters with performers in the mass media, particularly on television. Viewers or listeners come to feel and consider media personalities almost as friends. PSI is described as an illusionaryexperience, such that media audiences interact with personas (e.g., talk show host, celebrities, characters, social media influencers) as if they are engaged in a reciprocal relationship with them.
If you consider ‘production values’, ‘good editing’ and ‘tight and meaningful stories’, as important, you might have a hard time understanding the popularity of so many, many YouTube channels. You might be flummoxed why the kids love watching other people play video games. What I have come to understand is that for many channels, the audience experience is not to consume content but to hang out with someone cool or someone like them:
Garcia and Cassell both like to compare their channels to a neighborhood pub. Streamers become favorite bartenders, charming and constantly available. Viewers, swapping messages in chat, become fellow-regulars. There might be the occasional bar fight—Twitch can be as noxious as anywhere else on the Internet—but the tone is typically convivial. Viewers generate inside jokes, ask for life advice, even discuss their experiences of grief or depression. (They also pair off, as two of Cassell’s moderators did.) “There are two ways to look at Twitch,” Cassell told me. “One is that it’s people playing video games and other people watching, which is what ninety-nine per cent of the world sees. But the other side of Twitch is that you are playing a game with someone on the couch. There’s a level of interaction that’s just not there in standard media.”
What I am now looking for is a video or essay on the complicated and sometimes fraught nature of the parasocial relationship between the YouTuber and their audience that’s appropriate for a pre-teen, namely for my kids.
In the meantime, I try to keep up with who they are watching and I sometimes watch videos with them. When I do so, I give them commentary. I tell them what I like (“I like that this YouTuber protects her privacy by giving herself a fake name”) and dislike (“I don’t like prank videos because they are usually cruel and have a tendency to escalate”), as well as establish some firmer boundaries about what they are allowed to watch (at least in my presence).
I am also trying to be more mindful in my own viewing habits. I’ve largely stopped watching my favourite game streamer, for one. I also take note when the creators I follow are self-reflective enough to know their influence and applaud them when they step away from using their influence, even when they stop making the kind of YouTube video that I love the most:
One of the benefits of reading several books at the same time, is that occasionally a chapter that I have just finished from one book will somehow find resonance in another. Today I felt this, despite that James Bridle’s New Dark Age and Adrienne Clarkson’s Belongingare very different books.
From the blurb to New Dark Age:
As the world around us increases in technological complexity, our understanding of it diminishes. Underlying this trend is a single idea: the belief that our existence is understandable through computation, and more data is enough to help us build a better world.
Bridle’s chapter on Computation is exceptional. There is so much I would love to share but I will leave you this excerpt:
To take another example from aviation, consider the experience of being in an airport. An airport is a canonical example of what geographers call ‘code/space‘. Code/spaces describe the interweaving of computation with the built environment and daily experience to a very specific extent: rather than overlaying and augmenting them, computation becomes a crucial component of them, such that the environment and the experience of it actually ceases to function in the absence of code…
That which computation sets out to map and model it eventually takes over. Google sets out to index all human knowledge and becomes the source and the arbiter of that knowledge: it became what people think. Facebook set out to map the connections between people – the social graph – and became the platform for those connections, irrevocably reshaping societal relationships. Like an air control system mistaking a flock of birds for a fleet of bombers, software is unable to distinguish between the model of the world and reality – and, once conditioned, neither are we.
James Bridle, New Dark Age, p.37, 39.
Belonging, on the other hand, is a set of Massey Lectures from journalist and former Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson that addresses the paradoxes of citizenship. In her first chapter she tells several stories that express how our identity and our sense of belonging are deeply dependent upon each other.
If we remove our sense of belonging to each other, no matter what our material and social conditions are, survival, acquisition, and selfish triumphalism will endure at the cost of our humanity. Under extreme circumstances, each and every one of us is capable of a mentality that brings about the abandonment of children, the lack of cultivation of human relationships, and the deliberate denial of love.
Adrienne Clarkson, Belonging, p. 3.
To bring these two ideas together: Like an air control system mistaking a flock of birds for a fleet of bombers, software is unable to distinguish between the model of the world and reality, and if we let ourselves become conditioned to substitute our standing in social media with our sense of belonging in our social structures, neither will we.
Today the poet, Mary Oliver died. I don’t read much poetry and until today, the only words I knew of hers were these two lines:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
But today I finally read the poem from where those lines are from:
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
-- Mary Oliver
And so I did not realize that this poem was about a grasshopper and about how to be idle and to be blessed.
The fable concerns a grasshopper (in the original, a cicada) that has spent the summer singing while the ant (or ants in some versions) worked to store up food for winter. When that season arrives, the grasshopper finds itself dying of hunger and begs the ant for food. However, the ant rebukes its idleness and tells it to dance the winter away now.
From what I remember of the ant and the grasshopper, is the ant is hard working all year round building his house with his community and gathering food and resources and the grasshopper likes to jump around, playing in the meadow enjoying himself. When Winter comes, Ant is prepared and ready to get through it. Grasshopper, is not. The message is that hard, steady work pays off, and jumping around, simply for enjoyment, does not.
I think this way of thinking is dated. Our economy no longer supports slow, steady efforts that pay big dividends. It used to be that one got a job and worked till retirement and then got a pension for the rest of one’s life. This is no longer true. One needs imagination and entrepreneurial skills to be successful today, so maybe finding your passion by jumping around the meadow, and identifying what makes one happy is a good exercise.
My son received a Fitbit for Christmas. Since receiving it, it’s clear that he enjoys its ability to track his steps. He’s already quite active and so he’s using the device largely to recognize and acknowledge his existing behaviour rather than as a means to encourage any change in behavior. At the moment, the other functionality and measures of the device aren’t of interest to him.
But they are to me.
When I was reading up about his particular Fitbit, the feature that I was personally most interested in was its silent alarm feature. I immediately recognized that this was a solution of my current problem of how to start my day earlier without waking up my husband with an alarm from my phone.
And so every night my son lends me his Fitbit. And every morning, after the silent alarm rouses me out of bed, I remove it and set it aside for him and I start my morning routine.
What amuses me is that already the dashboard analytics of the device suggests that every evening, the resting heart rate of my son suddenly drops.
The app had a new UI and once I got my bearings, I noticed a tab with a red notification, marked “unknown” with over 100 data points over the course of several years. As a bit of background: the scale works by guessing who is who based on differing weights, and lets you name those people and the people in my house all had different weights when I bought it, making it easy to track us.
But there was an unknown person.
The unknown tab was interesting since the data started at a different number than any of us and then steadily fell. A lot. And there was years of data. At first, I thought it had to be data from another account on Nokia’s servers leaking into my profile. Who else lives in my house and could do this for years? I logged into the website to double check the logs.
I couldn’t think of anyone it could be. After a couple days of thinking it over, I finally noticed an obvious pattern in the data. It was only one recording a week, for years. Always around noon. Always on the same day.
Oh shit. I know who it was. It was our housecleaner.
This is a good reminder that ‘personal’ tools or ‘smart tools’ are built not to be shared. They are built to measure and track known users. Any use generates data and that data both reveals and betrays use.
I think we need to insist that our tools be convivial:
So what makes a tool “convivial?” For Illich, “tools foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user.” That is, convivial technologies are accessible, flexible, and noncoercive. Many tools are neutral, but some promote conviviality and some choke it off.
It is the first day of 2019, a year in which I have resolved to write more. I haven’t written anything on this blog since just before the election of 2016. No further explanation is necessary.
Some days ago, I was in a Holiday Inn in Burlington, Ontario. I was in the city to visit family and we opted to stay in a hotel to be less of a burden. We had been to this particular hotel before, and like our previous stay, we found that the hotel was filled with eight year old boys and their fathers as there was nearby hockey tournament. And this was fine. We knew not to book a room near the atrium lest the hockey dads would get too drunk and start singing through the night.
During our breakfast at the hotel, I passed a table as I made my way to the buffet table. There was middle-aged man and a small boy eating breakfast. The boy was wearing a t-shirt reading, Everyone Loves a Canadian Boy.
And I was a bit thunderstruck when I saw it.
It might be necessary for you to know that just before breakfast, I was reading the 2018 Massey Lectures, Tanya Talaga’s All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward, which explores the legacy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples. I had just finished the third lecture, The Third Space that describes the scale and the depth of the horrific abuse that Indigenous boys and girls have endured at the hands of those who were supposed to care for them.
And so when I read the T-shirt, I thought to myself, “That’s just not true. It’s never been true.”
The GOP presidential candidate has generated an absurdly long list of lies, fraud, and promises that curdles the blood of anyone who believes that the rights and freedoms of the United States are for all Americans regardless of creed or colour. It chills the blood of those who fear for the most vulnerable among us. And yet his polls rise.
Perhaps you are like myself and unsure how much consternation should be thrown at the feet of cable news and how much should be hurled at the men and women who find it easier to bring themselves to vote for a leader supported by Putin and neo-Nazis than for a woman and/or a Democrat.
It makes me wonder, has it always been about identity politics?
How much of the racism and misogyny – now shamelessly out of the open and now somehow – absurdly – beyond public rebuke – was already there, quiet, just waiting for a cue to express itself?
On the other hand, how much of what we see is just the loud and virulent audience participation of a few – not unlike the crowd that boos the bad guy in wrestling or MMA – who have no real power outside of the arena when the audience no longer has an audience?
How many conscientious objectors are among the GOP, silent but resolute in their belief that what is seen on television is not the America they live in nor the America they want.
2016 earned its title of annus horribilis many months ago when David Bowie and then Prince, passed on and left us with their music. Bowie and Prince did not transcend the societal boundaries placed around them but they did extend the boundaries of music, style, sexuality and identity for themselves and for all of us.
One answer to 2016 is more Prince. One answer to 2016 is more David Bowie.
I believe another answer is to hold your nose and get involved in every level of politics you can.
And I’ve been thinking still of a whole other coping mechanism to fight against the fear and rage shown to us on television and our social media feeds at every hour of the day that can mirror itself in our own nervous systems if not checked.
And that answer is – paradoxically – to let go of want.
And there is another, subtler reason you might find yourself convinced that things are getting worse and worse, which is that our expectations outpace reality. That is, things do improve — but we raise our expectations for how much better they ought to be at a faster rate, creating the illusion that progress has gone into reverse.
Perhaps my expectations for a world that forms to my will is a problem unto itself. Perhaps it a fundamental problem of how most of us understand ourselves in our world.
What if we treated everything the way we treat soccer and Tetris – as valuable and virtuous for being exactly what they are, rather than for what would be convenient, or for what we wish they were instead, or for what we fear they are not? Walks and meadows, aunts and grandfathers, zoning board of appeals meetings and business trips. Everything. Our lives would be better, bigger, more meaningful, and less selfish.
The above is from the preface to the recently published, Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games by game designer and scholar Ian Bogost. It’s a book that has given me much comfort during this past bad week. Play Anything starts with an exploration of boredom – not unlike the late David Foster Wallace in his unfinished work, The Pale King. But Bogost, unlike Wallace, doesn’t believe the cure for boredom is within ourselves but outside of ourselves once we pay a different kind of attention to the world around us.
Bogost then moves on to his real target – the ever present layer of irony that smothers our day and age. Play Anything is a difficult book to summarize. Between trips to Walmart and other excursions in pursuit of a greener lawn, Bogost slowly builds his case that it is working within materials and systems of constraint that brings us a sense of freedom and that fun is the opposite of happiness.
(Speaking of games, while I did not play The Witness – the 2016 game about exploring an abandoned island and solving puzzles, I did watch a ridiculous number of videos watching other people playing the game. Here’s a slight spoiler: in one part of the island of The Witness, you can watch a small series of videos from within the game and this particular video is strangely fitting).
I want to be clear – while I am considering giving up wishing for a better world, I am not giving up working towards a better one.
Between the rise of Donald Trump and our rising sea levels – the time to fight for our future is now.
Over the last week, several people in my social media circles have been wondering out loud if we should reconsider how we spend our attention especially when horrific violence is perpetrated specifically to generate a mass spectacle.
We got to ask ourselves where the line is between empathy and voyeurism is, and how we pick the targets of our concern.
For myself, I know that when I’m online at the same time something horrific is happening I feel terrible but I’m not sure that my following along accomplishes anything other than the sick feeling in my stomach as the images, speculative details, and the immediate hot-takes unfold and scroll before me.
Knowing that I can’t continue this way, I thought I would divert some of my attention from the news of the world and cast it towards the formal visual arts. I’m doing so not because I’m looking for answers but I’m looking for a better understanding… of what? I don’t even know. If I had to rationalize why I’ve decided to spend more time looking at art, I can tell you this story: there was a passage in At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails* that described a particular philosopher’s definition of art as ‘anti-technology’ in that art is not meant to “do anything” and this definition pleased me.
*I don’t have the exact wording of this passage because I lent the book to a friend who has taken it on vacation
It was recently my birthday and to celebrate I took the day off of work before exactly knowing how I wanted to spend the day other than not-at-work. I was debating between several options for short day trips but once I learned that The Cranbrook Art Museum was featuring a special exhibition called Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, it was as if the decision was made for me.
I was delighted to discover that the exhibition covered more than the work of traditional visual artists. It also considered the work of architects, radical social and political movements as well as graphic designers who were particularly attuned to the intersection of information and mass media.
As I did the museum shuffle through the rooms, I recognized some of the creators whose work was present (Stewart Brand, Archigram, The Diggers) but there were many who were new to me. There was so much to see, experience and absorb and rather than work through the art slowly, I bought the exhibition’s catalog for future study.
To be honest, I don’t know what makes one particular exhibition more exceptional than another once you you’ve set aside one’s personal taste for the art within. Or perhaps I should say, that because I enjoyed the art so much, I can’t objectively judge whether the collection of art made up a particular strong exhibition.
This happens as much in our feelings about art is in our feelings toward people. If you develop a “love” for, say, science fiction films, you no longer see them as you do other films; it becomes difficult to consider them outside your own love for the larger genre. A friend ask, “Should I see this sci-fi film?” You say, “Well, if you like science fiction films you will like it, otherwise…” When our love is too great, our taste blinds us. The designer Jason Kottke once described this on his popular Web site a new viral video as “so perfectly in the kottke.org wheelhouse that I can’t even tell if it’s any good or not.”
I picked up the book… why, well, because of the book I have no confidence in my ability to explain my choices relating to taste because what I have learned is that taste is complicated and there is a lot of scientific evidence that suggests that our rationales are largely rationalizations and not reasons:
Our ability to express an affective judgement about something happens in the range of milliseconds. This is a great skill for a complex world, a filtering mechanism for effectively navigating the crowded marketplace of life. But shortcuts come at a price: We may miss what we might really prefer, we may discount something we will later come to love, we may be misattributing the source of our liking.
I agree with much that was written about the book in this review from The New Yorker and found the book was somewhat disappointing because, disappointingly, it is very difficult to say anything definitive about taste. I did particularly enjoy the chapter on “The ecstasies and anxieties of art” where so many of the variables relating to taste come into play and conflict: the expert versus the beginner, context versus content, the emotional response versus a more intellectual approach, observing versus judging, and being fashionable versus being timeless.
One thing that is known is that they do not look at paintings very long. When Jeffery Smith, who for many years headed the Office of Research and Evaluation at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, analyzed the viewing times of Met visitors across a variety of paintings — including Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer and Lautze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware — he found the median viewing time for a painting was seventeen seconds.
From Vanderbilt I have learned that we pay more attention to the things that we like and we like the things we pay more attention to. And so with that message primed in my short term memory, I somehow I come across this video from Amy Herman who dropped by the offices of Google to discuss her book “Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life” and decided to watch it because I had decided that I was going to learn more about the visual arts. And I’m so glad I did, but it was for reasons that surprised me.
Amy Herman was once Head of Education of The Frick Collection in New York City. In that position, she developed a special class for medical students to help them get past the various forms of myopia that doctors can develop that can make it difficult to see symptoms that they don’t expect. That class was based on the work of the Yale Center for British Art but what Amy Herman did after was her own – she developed a similar class for law enforcement and then eventually, for many of various security and military bodies of the United States.
What I particularly responded to in her talk was Herman’s premise that every professional must be accountable for their observations and how those observations are put into words.
At the end of the talk, she again stresses the importance of words after giving a couple of examples of how essential that our words match our observations and not what we expect to see, including one that brings race into play.
In this course, you think about your observations and perceptions, you keep your inferences, biases and assumptions in check, you’re careful about your choice of words. You ask what you know, what you don’t know and what do need to know. If you think about all those concepts, I think it makes you a sharper professional.
Herman suggests that if you are to be a professional that serves the public, it is both in your best interest and in the public’s best interest to adopt a practice that takes the time, care and effort towards the act of observation before jumping to conclusions and actions that may prove, with time and reflection, completely unwarranted.
To me, this can be read as a demand for accountability in a deeply human way.
And it can start by all of us taking the time to observe and be aware of the ways of seeing art.