"For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can't beat the nasty side of existence. I may not have been a matinee idol, but say what you will about me, it's been a real human life!" Mickey Sabbath, in Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My own favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and Muddling through Life after Life.

Friday, September 23, 2011

From the Novel "The Impostor"

My last post reminded of something I wrote a long time ago.


George remembers a poster on the wall in a stairwell of his high school that read, “Who you are is a matter of how you spend your time.” Was there a picture with it? It was just a generic sentiment, of a type he would encounter again and again in the capacity of elevator serviceman for public schools. His school, though, was a private, Catholic one. And now the idea of one’s identity as a function of spent time strikes him as bourgeois, predicated as it is on one’s freedom to choose how to spend that time. At the time, insofar as he paid the poster any attention, he considered it a truism, too obvious to need pointed out. So, he wonders now, is identity itself a luxury, what biologists would call costly signaling? Perhaps the blue collars are closer to the mark when they implicitly take as the more crucial matter that of worth rather than identity. They play their worst life game, at once complaining and bragging about all the responsibilities they have to shoulder, because they’re desperate to establish beyond dispute their indispensability. A man can spend all his time doing things that are interesting, and he himself might even be interesting as a result—an intricate and profound personage—but what’s he ultimately worth? Or a man can devote his days to toil, providing for his dependent and spendthrift wife and his ingrate children, never complaining (except when he does), and he’s worth the world to the company he works for and the family he supports.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Is Your World Small and Nasty, Stupid?

Ron and Marty Hale-Evans have a new book out called Mindhacker. As much use as I got out of their previous book Mind Performance Hacks, the decision to get this one wasn't too difficult. It just came in the mail, so I haven't read it all yet, but the first hack I stopped to read as I was flipping through it, from the back, is so important I can't wait to share.

The hack is called "Take the One-Question IQ Test," and I'll get to the question after some preliminaries. For one thing, conventional wisdom must be dispensed with regarding a couple of matters. The first is that IQ is a fixed feature. In fact, there's pretty solid evidence that people's IQ's can change. It can even change depending on such daily factors as how much sleep you've had. The second common misconception is that the more intelligent you are the more likely you are to be the brooding and moody type.

The authors cite a study called "Is Ignorance Bliss? A Reconsideration of the Folk Wisdom," by Lee Sigelman. The main finding is that high intelligence tends to coincide with low anomia, which in Mindhackers is defined as "a feeling that life sucks and other people are to blame for it, so you're better off without them" (333). And other research has shown the ability to appreciate humor tends to be correlated with several important elements of intelligence.

Now the question, which the authors found in Robert Anton Wilson's essay "Stupidynamics":

Does the world seem to be getting bigger and funnier all the time? If it does, then you're intelligence is steadily increasing.

Or

Does the world seem to be getting smaller and nastier all the time? If so, your stupidity is steadily increasing.

The hack is to use this question (questions) as a "mental thermometer" to guide what you're doing. If you're busy doing something and your answer to the question is smaller and nastier, then you need to do something else--change your behavior. They give lots of advice on what else to do, referring to other hacks. They're fans, for instance, of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. But the test alone speaks volumes to me--maybe because I so often laugh at something only to have other people look at me like I'm crazy.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Disgraceful Business


I get spam emails asking me if I’d be willing to campaign for this or that political candidate. They always make me think for a minute: I have strong political views; I believe electing officials with certain beliefs is bad for the country; so maybe I should campaign.

But the fact is campaigns are a disgraceful business. Citizens shouldn’t need to be chased down and bombarded with marketing and PR gimmicks. It’s their duty as citizens to research the candidates and the issues on their own and to vote for the one they decide will best represent them.

This is na├»ve, I know. We have been trained by the media our whole lives. We want first to be entertained, second to be uplifted, and third to be told how great we are. When it comes to making decisions, we don’t want to have to take any active part in discovering the best course of action. We want to sit back and be allowed to play as passive a role as possible. We’re not looking to be convinced or persuaded—we’re looking to be sold.

In the past two weeks, I’ve gotten around fifty calls from some company whose purpose is to get donations on behalf of charities who hire them. It turns out Doctors without Borders hired them. And since I’ve donated to this cause in the past they see me as a good target for their campaign. But all the other times I donated I simply went online and entered an amount, without getting a single call. Since I’ve been getting calls, I haven’t made a donation.

I go to Sears and buy socks. Not a single brand offers any guarantee that they weren’t manufactured in sweat shops. Then I get to the register and I’m bombarded with more marketing. This is called POS, or point of sale marketing. “Would you like to save 15 percent by signing up for…?” No, I just want to buy some fucking socks.

So many companies are vying for our attention and trying to squeeze money out of us that civic and economic life in this country can no longer deal with actual ideas or values. Every encounter is based on strategies and every strategy is contingent on some number it generates.

As we’re fatted on entertainment and passivity, businesses and political parties continue running their focus groups and assessing campaigns, figuring out better and better ways to parasitize us. And we sit cheering on our favorite football team.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Hierarchies in Hell and Leaderless Fight Clubs: a More Modest Thesis Prospectus

Question:

Do the sciences of human behavior as practiced and understood in the Twenty-First Century have anything of value to contribute to the study of literature? Will the application of theories arising from the fields of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary anthropology to literary works yield anything beyond one more perspective in the seemingly endless succession of momentarily fashionable approaches to literary scholarship? Or is the scientific exploration of human behavior itself hopelessly incapable of transcending the culture in which it is undertaken? And, assuming any ultimate verdict on the value of evolutionary theories of literature is at present impossible to render, might they nonetheless shed some light on issues posing difficulties for other theoretical approaches? For instance, what accounts for centuries of readers’ sympathy toward characters who are on the surface meant to serve as villains? Milton’s Satan is a classic example of this phenomenon, while Palahniuk’s Tyler Durden is a more contemporary one. Are reader’s strong feelings on behalf of these antagonists understandable in terms of evolutionary theories of human behavior? And, if so, what does that suggest about the nature of human interest in fictional narratives like Paradise Lost and Fight Club?

Implications:

William Flesch, in his book Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, theorizes that humans’ passion for fictional narratives emerges from a predilection for monitoring one another for signals of their capacity for cooperative relationships. Humans naturally favor conspecifics who prove themselves capable of setting aside their own rational self-interests to act on behalf of others or on behalf of the larger group to which they belong. And they demonstrate their own altruistic tendencies by favoring other altruists and punishing those who would take advantage of them. Does the character Satan in Milton’s epic poem somehow signal to readers that he is altruistic? And is there some type of underlying message about cooperation in the seemingly senseless violence in Palahniuk’s novel?

Flesch, however, leaves another dimension of evolutionary psychology unexplored, one which could provide much insight into the appeal of both Milton’s and Palahniuk’s stories. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm explores the human propensity toward forming hierarchies in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. It turns out that, contrary to conventional wisdom, humans in foraging bands similar to those they have lived in for the vast majority of their time on earth are strictly egalitarian. Indeed, most contemporary hunter-gatherers would, with little prompting, express support for Satan’s famous line about it being better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven. And they would likely recognize many of the group dynamics Tyler Durden manipulates to gain ascendancy among the members of the fight clubs—as well as the ultimate necessity of having someone end his reign.

The theoretical foundation established by Flesch can likely support considerations of male competition for status, since one of the conditions thought necessary for the evolution of cooperation among humans is a relative absence of hierarchical behavior. One common form of selfishness humans are vigilant of in their neighbors is a strong motivation to dominate others. When a person, or a fictional representation of one, acquires influence incommensurate with others in the group, those other group members can be counted on to pay close attention to the way that person yields his (or less often her) power. If it turns out to be for the benefit of the group, the higher status individual will continue to have the support of the group. If it is to further selfish gains, the lower-ranking group members will usually act collectively to bring an end to his dominance. And this dynamic plays out in stories told by hunter-gatherers and writers in more complex societies alike.

Methods:

This project will explore the central characters of Paradise Lost and Fight Club in an attempt to illuminate readers’ feelings toward them. In particular, it will focus on Milton’s Satan and Palahniuk’s Tyler Durder, and will examine the way in which they are portrayed in search of recognizable signals of either selfishness or altruism. Such an exploration might also yield insights into how Boehm’s theories of human hierarchical or egalitarian proclivities can be integrated into the approach to literature set out by Flesch.