longing for the real

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Month: April, 2012

The Need to Know

I was alone on a cold winter night.  The house was empty, and the meal I made for dinner tasted faintly of solitude.  After washing the dishes in silence I tried to focus.  There must be something I could do to take my mind off this loneliness.  I could read a book.  I could clean my bathroom.  Any number of things might provide a temporary fix.  But one thought bristled atop all the rest: I could check my email.

Who knew what I might find?  Maybe someone had made plans for the weekend and I could try to tag along.  Or maybe someone had uploaded a funny photo on Facebook.  That might distract me for a while.  The mild absorption of browsing through my newsfeed, roaming and clicking to see what had changed in the lives of the 170 people who tacitly call me their friend, would at least put me in contact with some semblance of humanity. 

I was already up the stairs by the time I had this thought.  That familiar hunger fueling me, the computer was my only hope now.  Its solace was predicated on the reliability of my Internet connection, but I didn’t care.  The Internet always worked; it didn’t matter why that felt so good.  It just did.  There was no need to think further.  My reliance on this form of connection was too total to question on a night like this.

Moments later I was seated at my desk with fingertips poised.  As the Firefox icon bounced happily on my dock, my eyes widened in anticipation of the initial news my inbox would bring.  What a beautiful world I was entering.  What a pleasure to feel solitude receding so fast.  But when the page finally loaded, a pang of disappointment set in: there were only seven new messages in my inbox.  I could hardly evade myself for long on this meager diet.  But it was something, and the reality of my empty house around me made my shabby inbox feel full in comparison.

Nestled beside the uninspiring overtures from advertisers and volunteer organizations, one subject line grabbed me in particular.  “It’s snowing tonight in Rochester!” it read.  Yes, it was! 

The message was from OK Cupid, the online dating site I’d joined a few weeks ago, and I was desperate to know what it meant.  I clicked on it with everything I could muster, my entire being firm with needy resolve, only to discover another disappointment.  It appeared that OK Cupid had sent me a memorandum on the importance of thinking mathematically:

We noticed it’s snowing tonight in Rochester.  Our statistics show that more people sign in when there is bad weather.  It’s the perfect time to message that special someone!

This was not the first time OK Cupid’s outreach efforts had found their way to my inbox.  A week or so prior, I had received a similar epistle with an even less subtle subject line. “You are Hot!” it thundered alongside the more mundane messages in my inbox.  It was nice of them to capitalize the H.  I knew I was being conned, and under different circumstances I might have just deleted the email.  But some part of me wondered if OKCupid knew something I didn’t.  With the same trepidation that I open mail from the U.S. government, I clicked on the icon.  This is what I found:

We just detected that you’re now among the most attractive people on OkCupid.

We learned this from clicks to your profile and reactions to you in Quickmatch and Quiver. Did you get a new haircut or something?

Well, it’s working!

To celebrate, we’ve adjusted your OkCupid experience:

You’ll see more attractive people in your match results.

This won’t affect your match percentages, which are still based purely on your answers and desired match’s answers. But we’ll recommend more attractive people to you. You’ll also appear more often to other attractive people.

Sign in to see your newly-shuffled matches. Have fun, and don’t let this go to your head.

According to Sam Yagan, OK Cupid’s C.E.O., the company’s basic premise is that algorithms are the modern man and woman’s best guide to a happy love life.  “We use math to get you dates,” they explain on their About Us page.  Through detailed questionnaires and state-of-the-art matching software (all developed by a group of Harvard graduates between 2001-2007), the site calculates likely compatibility in the same way it calculates likely behavior; and this, Yagan claims, is what all of us really (secretly?) want.  For example, OKCupid knows that there is a strong likelihood that a woman who likes the taste of beer will be willing to sleep with a man on a first date.  In fact, liking the taste of beer is the only consistent factor that correlates to a woman’s willingness to have a one-night stand.  Apparently everything in life boils down to knowing how to crunch the numbers.

What makes this kind of knowledge so appealing? By Yagan’s lights, it is the eradication of uncertainty.  With fewer unknowns comes greater freedom, and with greater freedom comes greater happiness.  As he put it proudly during a New Yorker panel discussion of online dating last summer, “if you’re in line at Starbucks, we can tell you which of the three girls in front of you are your best match.”  Via your mobile device no less.

Who wouldn’t want to know that?  Who wouldn’t want to click on that icon?

Yet how do we not need to click?  How do we not need to know? 

Outsourcing our means of discernment to the gospels of algorithmic utopia certainly has its advantages.  But our quiet dependence on these new experts also generates a flight from reality that is rarely reported among more quantifiable results.

-Michael Fisher

From Populism to the Post-Industrial

Nearly every day, I walk by abandoned buildings. Buildings sitting idle, not having been in use for years; empty dilapidated buildings: these give my neighborhood and its surroundings their character. To be sure, there are those homes that some have chosen to maintain or restore. There are those people who refuse to abandon their community despite its economic depredations. But there’s no getting around the fact that just around the corner lies the vestiges of what was once a thriving city. There’s no getting around the fact of the post-industrial.

When I walk past an abandoned building, I can’t help but see the economic history of the last forty years through its broken glass windows. The financialization of capital deftly maneuvers through cracks in the boards, defying their boundaries of wood, nails, and “keep out” signs. The ghosts of workers and business owners seem to cry out from the past to say “don’t let it happen.” But what they don’t want to happen seems to me, unclear. Is it time?

Some on the left occasionally wax nostalgic about the populist era of William Jennings Bryan as a promise of inter-racial democracy, radically and tragically defeated by the consolidation of corporate capitalism. In looking wistfully to these fallen heroes, there is a sense that it is not only their defeat at the hands of capital, but their defeat by the hands of time, the one thing that makes their defeat, and all of our defeats certain, the dimension that adds such a tragic element to the populists’ downfall: its irreversibility. This temporal dimension of tragedy is the stuff of historians, the job of those political and culturally inclined keepers of the past who attune us to its differences, to what could have been and wasn’t. We look to the past and see the tragedy of human folly. But we also see the tragedy of time sweeping over this folly.

In this rendering of the past, our sense of possibility is given an outlet. We see the tragedy of the past and hope for a better future. But in the abandoned buildings of post-industrial cities, in the faces of those forced to live in forgotten and neglected neighborhoods, the tragedy of the past is there every day, enacting, in a sense, a “history of the present.” We need look no further than the de-facto racial segregation of cities like Syracuse, Baltimore, Buffalo, Detroit, and Cleveland, to see our egregious civil rights crisis, a spectacle with so much tragic history it seems at once to deny that history for exactly what it is now: simply a shame.

Yet the banner of “hope” in this country says nothing about this situation: nothing about the decay of cities, about the shame of their attendant segregation. It ignores the post-industrial. It ignores the historical tragedy of the promise of interracial living and community that small and medium sized cities once held before the imperative of urban renewal birthed the mantras of neo-liberalism.

If it is the inexorability of time that gives the tragedy of the past its force, then time stands still in post-industrial cities; time’s inexorability takes on a new dimension. Reflection on the past-as-tragedy gives time’s inexorability a particular sting when it escapes reflection and becomes imposition by and on the present. That imposition exists in our post-industrial cities, cities where capital follows its own muse, itself, and leaves behind the increasing ranks of the poor; where it can never make amends with its forgotten people and businesses alike, because it simply has no soul. No apologies.

The imposition of the past by and on the present presents us with an arguably more visceral tragedy than the defeat of the populists because of its freeze on time. Buildings remain unused, staring us in the face. Funding to poor areas continues to dwindle. Life expectancies become more disproportionate, falling heavily along racial lines. And nowhere in our political conscience do we seem to find a place for any of it. The fact of our cities arrests us with its imposition by and on the present, leaving us at the opposite end of a Sartrean existential dilemma where the possibility of action becomes the complacency of inertia.

As some still invoke the tragedy of the populists, the tragedy of our cities needs no invocation. And as we as a nation show no sign of addressing the logic of our cities, which follows, droolingly, the logic of capital, we’ll continue to live with, arguably, an even greater tragedy: the history of our present, the tragedy of the post-industrial.

-Erik Hmiel


Canonize, verb [with object]

officially declare to be a saint

From Latin canon for catalog of saints

First known use: 14th century

Canine, noun


From Latin caninus for canine tooth

First known use: 15th century

–Oxford Dictionaries Online

If canonization is veneration, and canine all things dog, then caninization is a term we desperately need, meaning:

1 officially declare [someone, canine or otherwise] to be in the pantheon of canine saints

2 the process of remaking society along canine lines

Yesterday I witnessed a deeply moving exchange between a small dog, perhaps a Yorkshire terrier, aka Yorkie, standing at most ten inches from the ground at the shoulder, and a medium large dog of mixed breed, somewhat resembling the black and white Border Collie, that alert and playful, yet highly responsible and hard-working guardian so vital in the herding of sheep. When I first glimpsed them, the taller dog was staring off into the distance at something, oblivious to the tiny dog. But the smaller dog, a female, wanted desperately to play. She stood up again and again on her hind legs, gently touching the larger dog with her paws on each side of his muzzle, both to steady herself in this standing position and to get the attention of her would-be friend, as if trying to look him directly in the eye.

Eventually, this tactic succeeded, and the larger dog responded. The dogs went into play pose, dipping their stomachs down to touch the ground, with front legs stretched straight out and hind quarters still fully upright. And they were off. Eventually, the larger dog found the play so much fun, in fact, that he was inspired to try to make a connection of a different kind. The stimulation was just too much.

One could see the interest in the taller dog’s eyes and extreme gentleness of his paw as he lifted it to touch the back of the little dog. He made subtle movements to get into position, but each time she moved ever so slightly aside, suggesting with increasingly ingenious, always good humored messages, that they might continue playing instead. I can’t say I remember too often at all seeing such a kind and gentle exchange between two humans–in any kind of interaction.

This behavior continued for quite a while, nature being the force it is. And yet, the little dog was just as determined to pursue her interest in fun and games. Other dogs came by and the two dogs mingled with them and ran off in opposite directions, or sat still, taking in the rest of the setting. Then, after a few minutes, they found one another again, as if finished socializing with others they liked but with whom they did not have the same special connection. The larger dog gave it one more try and the tiny one reminded him that her interest (and maybe ability, given her size) lay in the other enjoyments they could pursue together–but certainly with him. At this point, he dropped the request and gave in, abandoning himself completely to what she suggested. From this time on, the two were the picture of pure bliss. They were still lost in joy as I finally had to turn to leave.

In the past I realize I’ve mostly observed the behavior of dogs one at a time. Admiration, appreciation, and yes, even caninization of particular dogs has been a mainstay of life as long as I can remember. I was already accustomed to the furtive pleasure of people-watching in a large city, and the more open enjoyment of watching dogs too, but dog-watching has taken on new fascination here. In the dog park right around the corner from my temporary home in Rome, dogs are allowed to run free and do what they choose.

Contrary to caricature, these dogs’ patterns of seeking out others, both canine and human, and deciding on activities to pursue, is not as predictable as it might seem, an indiscriminate orgy of physical impulse knowing no bounds. Rather, it involves a subtle and complex–even sophisticated–emotional choreography. Each dog has his or her unique personality. And the canine capacity for loyalty, heroism, kindness, and courage is a given for any dog lover or reader of the dog stories I grew up on, by authors like Albert Payson Terhune. Great fiction writers and real world observers, these animal anthropologists, or better yet, canine-apologists, remind us that the animal kingdom is also our kingdom. The behavior of dogs, in whose midst we are so lucky to be born, live out our lives, and die, is thus a window into understanding and even realizing more fully our own natures.

How do we make decisions like the ones reached in the touching exchange between the little Yorkie and the Border Collie mix? My interpretation of the drama I witnessed can be hastily dispatched, of course, with the easy epithet of anthropomorphism. I impute human motives and understanding to creatures who lack our same degree of self-consciousness and are driven instead by purely biological imperatives and brute competition.

I think we would be better off questioning this biological fallacy. Can we really explain all aspects of creaturely experience with such dispatch? Are we certain that this isn’t the real anthropomorphism? Reading canine behavior as reducible at all moments to immediate impulse and the survival instinct could be less telling about a dog’s life than about the deficiencies of our own imagination in these times. Are we becoming tone deaf to intricacies we should be training ourselves to hear?

It’s not that I am arguing for canonization of dogs, exactly. I suppose they too have their all-too-human faults. Not always do they resemble the two I saw, with their carefully orchestrated and elaborate conversation that somehow liberated them for a truly intimate delirium. But it might be time to consider the benefits of a little caninization in our own lives.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

The Prospects of Precarity

If you happen to be a graduate student in the humanities today, the bad news is difficult to escape.  There are no jobs, everyone tells us.  An excess of PhDs has created a buyer’s market in which most of us will have trouble rising above the ranks of exploited adjunct instructors—if we’re lucky enough to reach that far.  According to the furthest-seeing analysts, economic and political realities have conspired against us.  Our prospects of finding gainful employment as tenure-track professors are considerably dimmer than they might have been for generations past, and this makes graduate school an increasingly fruitless endeavor.

That’s the story everyone knows, and many of us are depressed by it because we really wanted those jobs.  We wanted all the perks our professors enjoy, the nice homes, cars, and families that tenure seems to promise, or at least make possible.  Deep down, we wanted to secure comfortable positions within one of the upper regions of that great monolith, the American middle class, and now those positions appear to be vanishing.  Consequently, we feel at a loss.  The future, from our present vantage point, looks increasingly under-furnished, under-nourished, and underpaid.

But perhaps we’re looking at our prospects too narrowly.  Perhaps what we really suffer from is a failure of imagination.  If we no longer assume that graduate school ought to be about finding ways to replicate the lives our most successful professors live (including being part of the tenure system), then our depression over the current job market and our future job prospects becomes both a distraction and another instance of woe-is-me grad-student self-indulgence.

What we need is a different mental horizon—a more nuanced picture of who we are and what we’re good for.  Then maybe we can start thinking constructively again.  After all, the structural features of our academic era are not likely to change.  We have no basis feeling entitled to the bounties of a different time and place, and when we act like we do we confirm the worst suspicions of those well-meaning people who are always asking us how much longer till we graduate.  We’ve all suffered enough under the yoke of unrealistic expectations; remaining beholden to a broken, unworkable model of academic opportunity and reward can only result in more self-pity and depression.  So, for the sake of what dignity we still have left, let’s all join hands and move on.  Toward something else.

Given the current national climate of political and economic strife, it seems like good advice to remember what humanists have always done and construe our plight in broader terms than many of us are inclined to.  We live at a fascinating juncture.  Because we find ourselves inside one of this society’s formerly prized institutional footholds at a transitional moment, we have a novel opportunity to redefine our purpose and our prospects according to a new model and vision—perhaps ones more in keeping with whatever is happening all around us in this country and in the world.  What this new model and vision are, and what they can be, should take time for us to figure out.  But the first step is clear: by radically reconsidering our vantage point in a faltering American society, we can start seizing on the unique perspective our position as grad students affords us as sources of insight and agents of change.

This might well mean reevaluating our work, our interests, and our motivations for doing the kind of work we do.  Every kind of reform should be on the table, and we should defer to no fear of lost prestige.  If we’re willing to diagnose our present position accurately, and to follow it through to its conclusion, we should be willing to face the prospect of continued marginalization and to accept this prospect in solidarity with other contemporary marginalized groups, most of whom are in considerably worse shape than we are.

Of course none of this will come naturally or easily.  The fact that it’s difficult for most of us (myself included) to imagine futures without the cushy academic jobs and lifestyles our professors enjoy speaks to our privileged backgrounds and our aspirations for a level of affluence that may no longer be within our reach.  But maybe in letting this privilege and its accompanying aspirations go, we’ll relieve some of the pressure we’ve been under.  Maybe then we’ll finally feel like we can breathe.

Given our personal histories and the historic circumstances we now find ourselves in, do we really need to resemble our affluent parents and professors twenty years from now?  What new ideas and actual contributions might come from a class position of willed precarity?  From the deliberate cultivation of habits of thought and action that promise anything but intellectual insulation and material complacency?

Against a shallow clinging to privilege, we owe it to ourselves to ask these questions and find out where they lead.

-Michael Fisher

Can You Hear Me?

I often find myself thinking of why we send text messages. Like the other day. I wound up caught in what seemed like a conversation length discussion, written out purely on the keyboard of my phone, exchanging series of three or four sentences at a time with a friend. “Why don’t we just use the phone?” I wondered. Maybe it was simply easier not to.

On another recent occasion, the same wonder entered my mind. After calling a friend and getting the answering machine, I received a text message less than a minute later asking, in way that seemed to me glib, “what’s up?” As it turns out, my friend was at work-a valid excuse for not answering the phone, a tactic I’ve deferred to myself. But I can’t help but notice that on other occasions, many people seem much more willing to type out their correspondence than to actually use the telephone function of their phone. Perhaps this doesn’t mean anything.

But one might wonder about what it means as the fate of the cell phone as phone seems unclear with the recent surge in smart phone consumption. It seems as though there are more people staring at the screens of their phones than using them as mobile telephones where people talk to each other, where they listen to one another’s voice.

Ok, our means of communication are not static. The telegraph revolutionized the letter, the phone the letter, the cell phone the land-line, the smartphone our sanity. And perhaps this doesn’t mean anything. But I want to say that our reluctance to actually speak into our cell-phones, a wonder that we no longer seem to appreciate, and our willingness to send text messages-or engage in any number of other functions now offered on the cell phone-is symptomatic of a larger trend, something that feels more and more like the abnegation of emotion.

I’m no Luddite. I find technology wonderful, fascinating, even liberating. In light of what seems like a pervasive willingness to dispense with the emotional connections which our technology allows, in favor of communication itself-the ease of communication, communication for communication’s sake- I wonder, though, if technology is even at fault. But then, who are the curmudgeonly critics to blame? Are people complicit? Corporations? Capitalism? Though some of these culprits are more complicit than others, they all seem to bow to perhaps a larger master: the logic of ease. And I think this is perhaps nowhere more evident than in our increasing disuse of the phone as a phone.

When speaking to someone on the phone, the human voice-though sometimes distorted or unclear-beckons to an interlocutor on the other line. The voice seeks recognition and acknowledgment through verbal cues, tones, breaks in speech-all those contours and signals that make conversation intimate or awkward or romantic or painful. The voice conveys the stuff of emotion: it carries the self’s fluctuations in mood, responsiveness, ambiguity, and attention. Though I prefer face-to-face communication, I’ve always enjoyed long (or short) phone conversations for this reason. “I can’t talk right now, I’m busy,” said over the phone, is like a different planet to me than the same words written out in the form of a text-message.

Yes, the limitations of text messaging are obvious. Sometimes, text messages are more convenient; sometimes they’re just easier.

But what’s at stake with ease?

As we disengage from the (potential) intimacy of the phone conversation in favor of the text message, there is a sense that we are disengaging from ourselves. It seems as though we can we no longer bear the emotional dynamics of a conversation. Are they simply too much to bear?

As we evade these dynamics, we come to fear them. And in the process we come to fear emotion itself, a fear that comes at the expense of self-knowledge. The logic of ease comes to replace our self-understanding, gained through frank engagements with personal emotion and relationships with others. At the expense of such self-knowledge we seek ease, while our longing for connection chases idly behind, gasping for breath. We inhale these gasps reluctantly, like swallowing vegetables as a child facing the promise of ice cream. As we stare at screens, as we avoid the voice, we evade emotional connection. What’s at stake with ease is that we come to fear real emotion, the emotion carried by the human voice. And in turn, we come to fear ourselves.

Speaking to another, though obviously different in many ways, carries much of the same emotional resonance as sitting alone, where one is forced to confront one’s emotions. Of course, one’s interactions with another may be superficial or vary according to intimacy or circumstance. But the point is that there is a fundamental awareness of those contingencies-they are ever present in our consciousness lest we try to kid ourselves. But the logic of ease-the logic behind evading the phone through the text message-lets us do just that: we escape the contingencies of emotion that the voice carries with it for the same reasons we cannot bear sitting alone with ourselves, forced to confront the contingencies of our own self-knowledge. As ease becomes the hyper-imperative of the twenty-first century, we learn to forget this connection between emotion, self-knowledge, and connection with others. In fact, we come to fear it. And in turn we fear being alone, alone with these realizations; alone with ourselves.

Perhaps this doesn’t mean anything. I use text messages every day. I enjoy them. I admit my hypocrisy. But we should demand more of ourselves, given our incredible capacities for ingenuity and development, than the relinquishing of the self to ease-the text message over the phone call. As the logic of ease replaces the dynamics of feeling, can we hang onto, at the very least, the human voice?

-Erik Hmiel