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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

Bring on the Knight

The other day I was walking down the sidewalk, my thoughts lost in the beauty of the young day; who knew what lay ahead or really cared? It is springtime in Rome and I was enjoying a bit of reverie on my way to work. Each step blended into the next. There was no such thing as time.

Then a sound from right behind me–unidentifiable except as a signal of imminent danger–came crashing into my consciousness. Something large was coming at me and I would get hit if I didn’t move. In a flash, I turned to look, dodged the oncoming threat, and snapped into hyper-alertness.

What I saw, as I got my bearings, perched on the edge of the sidewalk, was not, thank goodness, a car coming down the sidewalk, though that can happen here in Rome, or a mugger–or worse. It was a jogger.

He was fit and muscular, with all the accoutrements of someone who ran a lot, and all the signs of someone who expected others to get out of his way. His progress was inexorable. He was doing something virtuous and important: high priority.

“Rudeness, pure and simple?” you might ask. “Plain old-fashioned boorishness?”

Yes, and even a bit mean. How did he know I could move so quickly at the last moment, without harm to myself? That I had full hearing and knew he was there? He was willing to take that risk. Maybe I should take it as a compliment. I looked young and spry enough to compete on an equal footing so he did not think of his muscled litheness as intimidating to me. All’s fair in love and sidewalks. Isn’t that how the saying goes? Or is it “each man for himself”…

But was it something more?

In another time and place, long, long ago, there lived a lovely lady who once faced a tremendous danger, a potential threat to her very life. Suddenly, riding up on a beautiful white steed, there appeared a knight in shining armor who swept her up and carried her off to safety.

In your dreams. As the cigarette ad said, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Right?

I know, I know, anyone who would suggest there might be something salvageable from the era of chivalry must be not just conservative, but downright reactionary, or worse, self-deluded. A believer in fairy-tales.

It is true there is much to criticize about historical eras when one sex was placed on a pedestal, only to be deprived of the rights, privileges, and basic human dignity afforded the other, and the other sex beset with expectations beyond any reasonable measure. But isn’t it equally cynical to assume today’s way of treating someone is inevitable? Is it really all that crazy and backward to imagine a kind of chivalry for the twenty-first century, one appropriate for an age of democracy and equality?

After all, there are still knights among us. If I had fallen, one of them would have rushed to my aid–whether a pregnant woman pushing a young child in a stroller, her five-year- old boy, the immigrant woman speaking neither English nor Italian going to her cleaning job, the old man doing repair work on the building across the street or the man in the perfectly cut suit. So others clearly think chivalry is not dead.

So what’s with the jogger? Everything about him gave the message that I should step aside. The wires dangling from his ears, his failure to make eye contact, the racing stripes of his expensive running attire: all bespoke his primary engagement with something other than the moment in which two human beings accidentally found themselves, at the same time, on the same humble patch of sidewalk. As Dalton Conley, author of The Elsewhere Society, might put it, in his mind the jogger was elsewhere, somewhere better. He had that grim look of someone who is certain he is in the right, even if he does not necessarily know why–who has to do what he has to do. The “I just work here, I didn’t make the rules” look of so much of modern bureaucratic life. Ok, perhaps he didn’t make them, but he’s enforcing them, isn’t he?

It is jarring to me when, in the act of developing just those things once associated with performing heroic duties–muscles, strength, endurance, self-discipline–, someone acts in a way that is the direct opposite. With today’s dominant culture nodding approvingly, the jogger perhaps places paramount importance on his physique–not because he seeks to serve anyone or anything, but simply for himself. At most, he imagines someone else it might please, impress, or attract. But isn’t it strange to betray ugliness in the very process of trying to cultivate allure and admiration?

The incident made me reflect on the purpose of this kind of self-important physical activity for those not facing warfare or other immediate demands for prowess, those not even willing to employ their strengths in the small tasks of generosity possible in everyday life; on that rarity today, a sense of honor and loyalty to an unattainable love and a belief in inner content, not mere appearance; on the vast differences in the way people can approach the inhabiting of the same moment, including one in which, out of nowhere, we share our little paths with another person, stranger or friend, however temporarily.

If this jogger stands for what it means to be alert and awake in the world as it is today, in the glare of daytime and full consciousness, I’ll meet you in the dream-world.

The future is but a question mark

Hangs above my head, there in the dark

Can’t see for the brightness is staring me blind

God bid yesterday goodbye

Bring on the night

I couldn’t stand another hour of daylight

~The Police

–Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Improving the Self Over Tea

Not long ago I made myself a cup of tea.  I was standing alone in my kitchen at the time, and as I waited for the water to boil, I ripped open the paper covering over the teabag so I’d be ready as soon as the whistling came.  This is a ritual I perform often, always alone in my kitchen.  But this time I noticed something different.  At the end of the teabag was a little scroll.  And on it were the words, “there is nothing more precious than the self.”

I buy Yogi tea for mundane reasons.  Their tea, particularly the Egyptian Licorice variety I was holding in my hand that day, is of high middling quality.  It doesn’t require sweetener if you let it steep long enough, and the flavor has a nice soothing complexity if you concentrate while drinking it.  I should admit that the ethos of natural, organic products also appeals to me, and that I prefer to pay just enough for my tea so I can be sure it came from one of the post-counterculture hippie outpost-corporations in Oregon or California.  I’m a sucker for the imagery of the Far East, and some part of me is probably comforted by the “Yoga Invite to Tranquility” on the side of the box, since this confirms Yogi’s hippie credentials.  The invite is as follows: “Sit cross-legged or in a chair with feet flat.  Rest your right elbow on right knee.  Lean your right cheekbone on the palm of your right hand.  Close your eyes and relax for 1 to 3 minutes.  Your mind and body will thank you.” But (in smaller print) “before doing this exercise or participating in any exercise program, consult your physician.”  The litigious warning was a little jarring, but I still tried the exercise.  Enlightenment comes in many forms, I guess.  But really I just like the tea.

I’m certainly within Yogi’s target demographic, and they’ve clearly sold me on their product.  So why the need to indoctrinate me on the preciousness of the self?  What was I meant to take from this message other than that someone down at Yogi headquarters (or rather, Golden Temple of Oregon, LLC) thought it might help sell more tea?

Anxious for the truth, I began ripping open the paper coverings over other teabags to see what further evidence I might find.  “Empty yourself and let the universe fill you,” said one.  “Be happy so long as breath is within you,” said another.  “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”  “May your mind learn to love with compassion.”

Maybe I was being too cynical toward the Yogi people.  Maybe they really do want to teach me how to live in accordance with the larger principles of the universe and to be a better person.  But why so much emphasis on the self?  Why so much attention to the words “you” and “your”?  Where does this language of the self come from, and why does it appear at the end of a teabag sold to a person like me in the year 2012?

The intersection between Eastern spiritual tenets and the American cult of self-improvement has been especially fraught since the late 1960s.  This was when the two strains began to converge around a mass market of products ranging from crystals to health food, and “yoga” started to become a household word.  Certainly many Americans have benefited from the influx of Eastern ideas and practices that this market enabled.  But it has also aided and abetted our tendency to equate self-improvement with merely personal consumption.

There is much to be said for the meaning of self-realization in ancient Hindu texts like the Bhagavad Gita.  But when this meaning is distilled, or rather translated, into an appendage to a mass-produced consumer good like Egyptian Licorice Tea, its original form and content have been surreptitiously altered.  Whatever its other connotations, “there is nothing more precious than the self” becomes absorbed in the immediate act of drinking soothing hot liquid and feeling content.  The result is perhaps a perfect synthesis of East and West.  But is this what the saints and sages of ancient India had in mind?

With fresh cup of tea in hand, I went upstairs to check out the Yogi website: www.yogiproducts.com.  There I found tabs for Yogi Tea, Yogi Cereal, and Well-Being.  Just below “Tea Talk With Guru Hari” under the Well-Being tab, I clicked on “Yoga Poses.”  Several of them looked interesting.  Each pose was accompanied by detailed instructions and an attractive woman in stylish yoga pants and tank-top demonstrating what it should look like.  I rolled out my yoga mat and tried a few of them.  Looking up at my ceiling, I wondered if I was doing them correctly.  Was this what “Yoga for natural comfort” should feel like?  I tried to close my eyes and breathe calmly as the instructions said.  But my eyes kept opening.  Bending and rolling my torso across the floor in slow methodical motions, my thoughts kept returning to my self.

-Michael Fisher

Irony, Death, Whitney

Recently, while taking a walk, I decided to phone my grandmother. I try to stay in touch with her as much as possible, usually through weekly or bi-weekly telephone conversations. And usually, upon hearing my voice, following her neutral “hello?,”  there is a noticeable spike in the happiness of her tone. But when I called on this particular occasion, there was no neutral “hello;” nor was there a corresponding perking up in her voice. She was crestfallen, and I could tell that she had been crying. To hear my grandmother so out of sorts, so melancholy, my heart was gripped. When I asked why she had been crying, she responded by telling me that she had just been watching the televised memorial service for the recently deceased Whitney Houston. This struck me.

Upon hearing the news of Whitney Houston’s death, I admittedly felt very little emotion other than surprise. She was a figure beloved by millions, but not by me. And though I know her only abstractly as a celebrity figure, godhead to those taken in by what is, in my mind, “bad” music, my acknowledgment that she, as a human being, ceased to exist, frankly under-whelmed me. Though I hadn’t considered my lack of compassion regarding her death, I understood my reticence exactly: we can only make connections to certain people in particular situations; our subjectivity is shaped by the nature of local environments and the emotions of those few people we make lasting connections with. So was I heartless to care so little about the death of Whitney Houston, a distant abstraction in my mind, removed from the purview of real, immediate relationships? How could my gentle grandmother resonate so deeply with the death of the same abstraction?

Rather than trying to understand this quandary in terms of a tired critique of our celebrity worship, I think about the scenario in somewhat different terms: those of irony and death.

My distance from such figures as Whitney Houston, and the for the most part, the general climate of popular culture is, in a sense, an ironic move. In a way, I believe that my distance from figures like Houston is a way of ascribing to myself a sense of superiority. Though my inclination towards egalitarianism makes me shirk at the thought of describing myself as someone with good taste, I recognize that my cultural proclivities and intellectual endeavors betray a sense of distance that tells something of my perception of what it means to fill the cultural role of superiority. Such recognition is ironic, because my choice to generally decry popular culture runs against my competing belief that what one reads, watches, or listens to does not mark one as a better person. So how then could I conceivably reconcile this flagrant contradiction with the visceral feeling of hearing my grandmother crying at the experience of sharing in the event of Whitney Houston’s death?

What I take to be my implicit sense of superiority (though I like to act as though it’s not there) was brought to the fore of my mind when I spoke with my grandmother on the phone. With a lugubrious yet elegant tone, she described to me how beautiful the service was, how profound the outpouring of support, how moving was the impressive attendance. As I listened to her speak and lament, I became suddenly aware of not only my pretense, but how that pretense was undergoing what Jonathan Lear calls “ironic disruption.” That is, I became conscious of myself as a person aspiring towards something, in my actions and held cultural sensibilities, through an uncanny reconsideration of what that aspiration means; that sense of myself returned to me as something both familiar and profoundly disorienting. Stanley Cavell calls this the experience of the “ordinary.” And what attended this reconfiguration was the mournful yet placid sound of my grandmother’s voice, in profound appreciation for a woman she only knew as an exceptional celebrity. It was her sonorous sounds of mourning that arrested my pretense, my desire to control the fact that a human being had died through some snarky derision about her drug use or sordid life. In her voice was something approaching faith; and in my disruption was death saying hello.

When we are lucky enough to experience these moments of the ordinary, these experiences that remind one of faith’s possibility (and we all experience these moments), the thought of death inevitably emerges. With reminders of death, with births, in tone of voice and bodily comportment, death emerges as that one thing that makes us all the same. On this understanding of death, we dance arm in arm with its inevitability, present at all points of our life. But this “being unto death,” as Heidegger put it, needn’t be tragic. It is profoundly ironic, an anchor for both our pretense and grounds for the disruption of that pretense, the disruption of the rational will. When William James spoke of this disruption in his essay, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” he was, I think, suggesting something we can use to understand this ironic orientation toward our death:

“Yet so blind and dead does the clamor of our own practical interests make us to all other things, that it seems almost as if it were necessary to become worthless as a practical being, if one is to hope to attain to any breadth of insight into the impersonal world of worths as such, to have any perception of life’s meaning on a large objective scale.”

Our inattention to the other, an undue attention to our practical interests or rational reflections, can make us blind not only to others, but to the moments of disruption, the “becoming worthless,” that attunes us to death and anchors us to the joys of life. Such attunement is like an ironic dance with death, the possibility of transcending our pretense in connections with others.

But what do we make of these connections in the twenty-first century, when so much of what this possibility entails is implicated in the wonderful and horrible juggernaut of instant technology and globalization? My first inclination is to recoil. I want to see others face to face, hear sounds and see images somehow unmediated. But perhaps this is a misguided, quixotic ideal. In our fulfillment of social and cultural roles, in our questioning of those roles, we are always mediated; not simply by language, but by that human insecurity about what it means to live a meaningful life in the face of immanent death, by those disruptions that call into question the relationship between one’s distance from Whitney Houston and one’s closeness to one’s grandmother.

This insecurity will never leave us as long as we remain human. And now we liberate ourselves from this insecurity online, in the capacious world of hitherto unseen images, unheard music, and unmet people. The imperative toward local community and its attendant emotional dynamics may in fact be a foregone conclusion, but we still shape our identity through the tremulous search for connection and affirmation that betrays our ironic orientation toward death, the search for that connection that disrupts our sense of self, that makes worthless our practical roles.

To return to my grandmother, then, I think about how a woman much closer to death than I meaningfully engaged with the memorial service for Whitney Houston, and how hearing of her grief disrupted my sense of self. I still don’t feel moved by Houston’s death. But I think I understand better why we cannot ever escape our ironic stance toward death, why we can only continue to take it by the hand in waltzes; why the disruption of our pretense, our claims on the world, has to be, and is taking shape around us in new and profoundly interesting, perhaps even liberating, ways.

-Erik Hmiel

Tourism or Narcissism?

I stood in the early spring sun soaking up the majestic beauty of Trevi Fountain. There was a seething crowd of tourists all around, with groups of every size competing in every language to be heard. It was happy noise and smiles abounded. Though it seemed a little excessive and quite deafening, the excitement was understandable. Or was it?

A woman near me sat on a post with her legs wrapped around the shoulders of her male companion, who was standing in front of her. It struck me as strange both because of the over-zealous public display of affection and the decibel of the unnatural woman’s laughter and because both were facing away from the fountain. Then I realized they were monkeying around for the camera.

Scanning the crowd, again and again I glimpsed people posing for an image of themselves. Except for the occasional solitary soul–no doubt one of the brooding sort like me–rarely did I see someone actually turn around and look at the fountain.

One teenager had furry boots the size of a Clidesdale’s long-hair-draped hoof at the end of her spindly tights-clad legs. As she struck various fashion-magazine-type poses, she seemed oblivious to her surroundings. All I could think is why all the trouble of leaving home if they just wanted pictures of themselves.

It is even endearing at times that people would want pictures of themselves in front of a monument that means so much to them–if it does, that is. It was the sheer number of poses and photographs that added up to what seemed like something other than what it claimed to be.

It is not that I wish to bash tourists. Perhaps it is more a certain tourist sensibility that is responsible for the less pretty pictures one can see even on a glorious day like this one. It actually troubled me a bit to see so few Americans, the usual culprits when it comes to this kind of self-obsession, because self-flagellation was not an option. Was this the culture of narcissism, à la my Dad’s book, gone global?

But lest we get too grim, I really do not think tourists are to blame, pure and simple.

One time I set out on one of the least attractive sections of the Erie Canal walk in Central New York. It was off season and the area really looked down in the mouth, in that distinctive upstate way. This thirty foot section of the path, at the head of the trail just out of the parking lot, was now rural after a fashion, if you consider overgrowth from apathy or neglect the countryside. The postindustrial-looking cement and rusted iron was typical for one of the ersatz grand old cities that form a constellation across the state along Route 90, which parallels the old canal route.

Just starting or finishing my walk, I noticed a small group of Asian visitors ooh-ing and aah-ing, pointing at this and that–a tree branch, the pitiful dirty stream, the sky, the birds? Somehow the sight of these strangers admiring terrain I knew so well as to take it for granted, moved me deeply.

This memorable encounter changed my opinion of tourists permanently. Seeing other people appreciate things can make one see them completely differently. Since then I have a special fondness for the place, the understated charm of which it took the eyes of strangers to make me see.

But there is another kind of tourist, unlike those who were looking at the run-down area of the canal path. The latter gazed with what appeared to be near reverence; theirs was a demeanor of respect and openness to what they could glean from the setting. They wanted their pictures taken with it as the background, to treasure later.

The other kind of tourist has, of course, been much maligned. We know this character from literary portrayals of American tourists in works from Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad to The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, with the film version starring Marlin Brando. Nineteenth-century reformer Margaret Fuller, the most prominent female member of the crowd of Emerson and Thoreau, was greatly influenced by her Italian travels, as was Henry James later on. She thought Americans abroad fell in the categories of “servile” (those who voraciously imbibed everything Italian out of pure self-indulgence) or “conceited” (those who thought American achievements to be progress over the old ways, which they saw as inferior by definition). She preferred, naturally, the “thinking American,” who recognized the advantages of the American context (her passion was for democracy) yet did “not wish one seed from the Past to be lost”:

“The history of our planet in some moments seems so painfully mean and little, such terrible bafflings and failures to compensate some brilliant successes–such a crashing of the mass of men beneath the feet of a few, and these, too, of the least worthy–such a small drop of honey to each cup of gall, and, in many cases, so mingled, that it is never one moment in life purely tasted….” (Dispatches from Europe, 1846-60, “Dispatch 18: New and Old World Democracy.”)

What a beautiful phrase: “one moment in life purely tasted.” Fuller’s sensibility is so much more helpful than the supposed cultural expert qua tourist, like one who informs us in Bon Appetit that Trevi Fountain is “overrated” (May 2011). Just what would he think of that little patch of the canal path?

In an act rare for me, I decided I wanted my own picture of the magnificent fountain on this glorious day. With some serious manual calisthenics, I was able to get one without any of the tourists in it. That is, unless when I upload the photographs, it turns out their reflections appear, like that of Narcissus, marring the exquisite pale green of Trevi’s pure waters.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Cosmopolitanism Now

We sat there waiting for the great man, the room a jumbled matrix of hair and skin, eyes and clothes of every color under the sun.  We were his cosmopolitan audience, he the spokesman for a new global community we hope to see realized.  Yes, we want to believe in this possibility.  We want to live in a world of “universality plus difference,” as he calls it, where care for the other and care for one’s own are merged in a single thought.  But how will we get there, one wonders?  How to embrace something called “human values” while remembering ethical intuitions closer to home?

Officially, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s talk was on “Islam and the West.”  But when he took the podium he told us he would proceed in his “characteristically peculiar” way.  Before we heard him speak, several things about Mr. Appiah suggested that he might be peculiar.  According to our event program, he “grew up between England and Ghana, in a multi-national family that now includes cousins, nephews, nieces and in-laws on every continent (except Antarctica).”  Now he’s the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton.  Funny how that works.  “When he’s not on the road—traveling to discuss his ideas and keeping up with his widely-dispersed family—or busy with his teaching and research at Princeton, Professor Appiah likes to relax at his home in New Jersey, where he and his partner tend small flocks of sheep and ducks.”  A good cosmopolitan and a good shepherd.  Who could ask for more?

Appiah writes books with titles like The Ethics of Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, so we had every reason to expect a solemn lecture on the present dilemmas of Islam and the West—on the obvious incompatibility/incommensurability that everyone living in either culture in the early twenty-first century recognizes at the drop of a hat.  But this solemn lecture never came.  First we got a history lesson.  In his comfortable Cambridge diction, Appiah began recounting the intimate details of European/Muslim relations over the course of several centuries.  “History is philosophy by example,” he quoted Dionysus.  And about thirty minutes into his talk, a pattern began to emerge.  “East and West have always been intertwined, wherever you draw the line,” he intoned.  “By and large, we do not live in mono-cultural, mono-lingual societies, and by and large we never did…. Literature, sports, religion and philosophy are all much more transatlantic than we think.”

According to Appiah (and as he later mentioned, Benedict Anderson), there are no such things as “Islam” and “the West.”  These mental fictions illustrate the basic human tendency to associate essential qualities with small sets of data.  Because we evolved to draw consistent conclusions about the complex features of our natural environments, this trait is hard-wired in us.  During the Q and A, Appiah gave a good example about mosquitoes and West Nile Virus.  “Only about 1% of mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus,” he explained, “but if I tell you that mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus, you’ll likely be afraid of all mosquitoes.”

Thinking this way is an inextricable part of our nature; in Appiah’s words, it is “part of what makes us human.”  Yet it is also the germ of much of what ails us this far down the evolutionary continuum.  Thus Appiah’s dilemma: the challenge of living in the early twenty-first century boils down to the conflict between parochialism and cosmopolitanism.  Do we maintain the fiction that essential qualities bond us together as a “nation” and a “people”?  Or do we embrace the fact that “Franz Kafka probably had more in common with Miles Davis than he did with his fellow central European, Johann Strauss”?

In the foyer outside the lecture hall, the mood was ebullient after Appiah’s talk.  We the audience had been illuminated, even if the light we saw was not particularly new or original.  In places like the liberal universities of the northeastern United States, Appiah’s cosmopolitanism has become a kind of ethical intuition unto itself.  Few of us doubt his history or the validity of his critique of nationalism.  And we yearn for the political implications of this critique to become real and binding throughout the world.  “If only they could see…” we whispered to ourselves, forgetting that the “they” we imagine has ceased to exist.

This densely packed foyer was a microcosm of the cosmopolitan worldview for which Appiah stood.  Yet its limits begged the question of how far it can spread.

-Michael Fisher