I’m Scared, Therefore I Work

A few weeks ago, I got into an argument–offline, not online–about those two horsemen of the apocalypse that are destroying the American nation, rendering it financially insolvent, and turning the American Dream into the American Nightmare. I’m referring, of course, to unions and teacher tenure.

At the heart of these fears is a very interesting generalization about the nature of human motivation in the domain of ‘work.’ To wit, humans only work productively and usefully in an environment of fear, with a Damoclean sword hanging over them: a worker only works and produces value if he or she is made aware, perhaps relentlessly, that immediate termination of his employment is possible at the whim of his employer. Otherwise, the worker will slump into his naturally indolent state, content to cut corners, all the while taking home the hard-earned money of his employers. The unionized worker is protected by the union and the provision of the contract it has signed with management, so he will not work; the tenured teacher knows he or she ‘cannot be fired,’ so naturally, having once obtained tenure, he will kick off his shoes and put them up, content with merely punching time-cards for the rest of his career. To permit the formation of unions, to grant tenure, is to open the gates to an army of sloths, come to nibble away slowly at your productivity schedules and financial bottom-lines.

It is unclear, of course, where those folks who are unionized or tenured, and are yet nevertheless productive and creative, fit into this picture. I presume there are some tenured teachers in this nation’s schools who continue to come to work, teach, assign homeworks and grade them, take their wards on field trips, write recommendation letters, meet parents, and so on. From personal experience I know that many tenured professors continue to teach, advise students, work on intellectually challenging projects and write in a variety of fora. I’m puzzled by what motivates them. Why do they continue to work, when they know they ‘cannot be fired’? (Come to think of it, why am I writing my next book, a business which is driving me a little batty at the moment, when I know won’t be fired if I don’t finish it?)

I wonder if this conception of human motivation is grounded in an archaic conception of ‘work’ itself: to wit, that work is that thing which is unpleasant, forced upon the worker against his will, which he accepts only because of external circumstance, and to bind him to which therefore needs some further form of compulsion. In this picture it seems unimaginable that anyone could ‘choose’ to work, to immerse themselves in a compensation-offering activity that they might find fulfilling. So the aspirant for tenure, one building credentials for that application, is merely shamming. His activities, his productivity, is merely a ruse to enter the building. Once inside, he will immediately disdain precisely that which occupied him so and secured him admission. All that interest in writing and teaching? Merely feigned. There is no need for that sham anymore. Tenure is here.

The panorama of human activity, the various engagements in projects of intellectual and moral worth, their grounding stands revealed: the folks engaged in them are scared of being fired.

The Renewability of Cricket

My latest post at The Cordon at ESPN-Cricinfo is titled ‘The Renewability of Cricket‘.

Here is an excerpt:

I want to suggest here that “we, as players and spectators” have a great deal to do with the perceived complexity of cricket. Quite simply, this is because we change over time; we do not bring, to our encounters with the game in the middle, a stable, enduring entity, but one subject constantly to a variety of physical, emotional, psychological, and of course, political variations. This perennially in flux object brings to its viewings of cricket a variety of lenses; and we do not merely perceive, we interpret and contextualise, we filter and sift. (As John Dewey, the great American pragmatist philosopher noted, “Thought is intrinsic to experience.”) These interpretations and contextualisations change over time.

The 45-year-old man, the professor, the older version of the once-15-year-old schoolboy, sees a very different game of cricket from his younger counterpart. And as he continues to “grow” and change, he will continue to “see” a different game played out in front of him. He will renew cricket, make it extensible and renewable. The seemingly infinite variations possible in a 30-hour, 450-over encounter between 22 other humans, each playing cricket ever so differently from those that have preceded him, will provide ample fodder for this extensibility and renewability.

A game of cricket exists within a larger symbolic order of meaning. When a young spectator sees men in white pick up bat and ball, he understands their activities within a perceptual framework in which active fantasy and wishful longing play an active part. As he grows, matures, acquires a political and aesthetic sense, and hopefully expands his intellectual, emotional and romantic horizons he will revise this, and come to understand the game differently. He may go on to watch umpteen variations on the fourth-innings chase theme, and each one will be uniquely located within this under-construction framework.

Trigger Warnings For Assigned Readings?

On Monday, I wrote a brief note here on Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, commenting on its very distinctive tragicomic style. Earlier in the day, my class had discussed–among others–parts XI and XII of the novel, two sections in which the violence and depravity in the abandoned mental hospital reaches new depths. Rape and a stabbing death are its most prominent features. Our discussion went well; I had asked students to bring in examples of passages they found satirical, and we talked about how these served to make Saramago’s broader ethical and political commentary more distinctive.

Later that evening I received an email from a student, who noted that the graphic nature of the reading might have been traumatic to those in my class who might have been affected by similar trauma. She asked me to provide a ‘trigger warning’ for the readings in future.

I wrote back to the student, apologizing for any distress caused her, and asked her to come in to meet me during my office hours. She has not written back to me yet, but I expect we will meet soon enough.

Meanwhile, this morning, in class, I began by talking to my students about the email I had received–without naming the author, of course. I acknowledged that the reading might have been experienced quite differently by the many readers in my class, each bringing to it their unique personal backgrounds and experiences; I went on to note that in the first class meeting of the semester, I had pointed out that the subject material of the class–a concentration on post-apocalyptic literature–was likely to involve many difficult emotional and intellectual encounters and that our reading of Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach had already exposed us to some very painful and melancholic ruminations on death and dying. I noted that the readings which remained in the semester would often take us down similar paths (I made especial note of  Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road at this point.) I then wrapped up by reminding my students that they would often encounter reading material in college which would be distressful in many different dimensions, but again, this did not mean that no sensitivity could be shown to those who might find them traumatic.
We then returned to our final discussion of Blindness.As I was taken unaware by my student’s email, I do not know if my responses are adequate or appropriate. All and any comments are welcome.
Addendum: Thanks to all for your comments. I’ve deleted the email text I had originally reproduced here and replaced it with a paraphrase.

Coffee-Makers, Deprivations, Indulgence, Affordances

A few weeks I broke the quasi-bakelite handle of my stovetop coffee-maker. Rather, it broke by itself: as I poured the hot, steaming liquor into my mug the handle snapped and the coffee-maker crashed to the counter-top, spilling some coffee, but mercifully, not scalding or burning anyone. I have some affection for this venerable appliance; I could not bear to condemn it to the trash.  So I continued to use it, handling its burning hot metallic surface–now devoid of a handle–with a kitchen rag or a pair of oven gloves. Sometimes my handling is clumsy; sometimes it is expert. I fretted and worried about whether it was safe to continue to use the maker in such fashion. I took especial care to never pour coffee out while my little daughter was in the kitchen.

This coffee-maker is not the only one my family owns. As middle-class aspirants to the good life we own a second coffee-maker, this one with a smaller capacity. It is pressed into service when only one of us wants to make a coffee (like I just did a few minutes ago). This one still has its handle intact. When I first used it after breaking the larger one’s handle, I picked it up as I always did, with its safe, cool, bakelite grip.

As I did so, without relying on protective cloth or glove, without the acute care I need to exercise when using the handle-free counterpart, without the slight edge of anxiety that marks my efforts in that domain, with a sudden facility and ease I had not experienced in quite a while, I felt curiously exhilarated. A simple touch, a contact with, and employment of, an object made of plastic, a lowly handle, had served to remind me of several dimensions of my daily interaction with the physical world around me. It was also an acute reminder of the contextualized nature of deprivation and indulgence.

In a few short weeks, I had come to regard a previously unchallenging domain of physical exertion–pouring coffee–as one requiring just a little expertise, attention, and care. A task I could perform with little thought, with a conditioned dexterity, had become considerably less facile. The affordances of the coffee-maker had changed; it had changed my relationship to the space of the morning kitchen, my bodily awareness of myself in my only partially wakened state.

As I used the smaller coffee-maker, I was only using a previously utterly unremarkable object, one whose features had always been taken for granted.  But now it was distinctive; it provided a luxury the deprivation from which had made me more sensitive to its offerings. A coffee-maker with a functioning handle felt like a rare indulgence; I could simply approach the object, grip it with ease, and get to using it, not worrying in the least about cloth slipping, boiling hot coffee, scalding and burning me as it cascaded to the floor below.

A simple, short deprivation; an acute change in my embedding in my environment; an elevation of the ordinary to the sublime; new pleasures discovered; a quick lesson in the mediated relationship to the world through the physical objects that populate it.

All because a coffee-maker’s handle broke and I was too lazy to get a new one.

Jose Saramago’s Blindness, And Its Many Visions

Jose Saramago‘s Blindness is a very funny and a very sad book. It is a very sad book because it is about a cataclysmic event–an outbreak of blindness in an unspecified place and time–and the breakdown of social and moral order that follows; it is very funny because this apocalypse of sorts provides an opportunity for the novel’s author–an omnipresent narrator–to deliver an ironic, caustic, hilariously satirical black commentary on the people–unnamed ones, all of them–and the culture affected by this mysterious outbreak.

This co-existence of the tragic and the comic is what makes Blindness into a wildly entertaining and thought-provoking read.

Of course, any novel about catastrophic, apocalyptic blindness, written by a member of a species whose overpowering sensory modality is sight, which so casually dabbles in homilies like ‘seeing is believing’, whose metaphors for ignorance speak of darkness and for knowledge as illumination, and one of whose central philosophical allegories is that of the Prisoners in the Cave, was bound to be philosophically provocative. We, the readers, wonder about the symbolic and allegoric value of the novel’s characters being ‘blinded by the light’, the significance of their blindness leading to a world of overpowering milky white as opposed to coal-black, the relationship between moral, physical and spiritual blindness, about what may be ‘seen’ by those now blind, and what those who are not blind can no longer ‘see’, about what else, in a world no longer visible, becomes palpable and sensed and otherwise experienced. We wonder too, as readers, about our own blindness: what we might be blind to in the book and in our daily lives. (My first class meeting on Blindness  was almost entirely taken up with a discussion of these issues and how the vehicle of blindness played into the author’s larger political, ethical, and artistic vision; oops, can’t stop dealing in these metaphors.)

In Blindness, there is ample description of the breakdown of social order that results from the epidemic of blindness, ample opportunity to shake one’s head at the venality of man that becomes visible in desperate times–there is violence, filth, murder, sexual degradation. What makes these treatments of the aftermath of disaster distinctive is that Saramago’s treatment is both kind and harsh: we sense an observer of the human condition whose heart breaks for the misery he can see around him, who feels the most exalted of human emotions, love, for those who suffer, and who yet, in moments of exasperation, cannot resist a cackle or two at the stupidity, crassness, and greed of the human race. But if the author is a cynic, one bursting to the seams with irony and witticism, then he didn’t start out that way. This world and its peoples made him so. The disaster that has befallen them is not a punishment; it is not a judgment; it is merely an inexplicable event, like the ones this world specializes in, one that has produced this opportunity to carefully study, in some painful and revealing detail, the imperfect reactions of a kind of creature who is always, at the best of times, fumbling in the dark.

No Atheists In Foxholes? Plenty of Atheists In Cancer Wards

In writing about Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine year old cancer patient who has scheduled herself for a physician-assisted suicide on November 1, Ross Douthat asks:

Why, in a society where individualism seems to be carrying the day, is the right that Maynard intends to exercise still confined to just a handful of states? Why has assisted suicide’s advance been slow, when on other social issues the landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction?

This question will predictably be answered by some variant of the usual Douthat analysis. To wit:

Because liberals misunderstand the American soul, if not the human condition, which is offered more soothing, palliative balm, more existential comfort, by the religiously infused conservative spirit, the true heart of America, and really, perhaps all of humanity. This Godless, cold, uncaring cosmos of the liberal imagination–where it ultimately fails is in being able to address La Condition Humaine

With that in mind, let us press on.

It does not take us too long to encounter Douthat’s current version of the answer I supplied. Here it is. ‘Liberalism’, in the context of the assisted suicide debate, is:

[A] worldview ill equipped to make sense of suffering that’s bound to lead to death, or that does not have a mountain-climbing, op-ed-writing recovery at the end of it.

Thus, unsurprisingly, in the Maynard case:

[W]hen it comes time to make an affirmative case for what she actually has to live for, they [liberals] often demur. To find that case, you often have to turn to explicitly religious writers — like Kara Tippetts, a mother of four currently dying of her own cancer, who wrote Maynard a passionate open letter urging her to embrace the possibility that their shared trial could actually have a purpose, that “beauty will meet us in that last breath.

But perhaps liberals demur because they don’t think they can articulate a rationale for continuing a life of pain and discomfort, with no possibility of relief, one that saps the soul of those left behind, without descending into dishonest turnings away from the suffering at hand. I’ve read Tippett’s letter. It reminds me of theological solutions to the problem of evil that I often discuss in my philosophy of religion classes: they don’t work; they only do on those already convinced of the theses the suffering find inexplicable.  Tippett has found her solution to her crisis; she should respect Maynard’s.

Douthat continues:

The future of the assisted suicide debate may depend, in part, on whether Tippetts’s case for the worth of what can seem like pointless suffering can be made either without her theological perspective, or by a liberalism more open to metaphysical arguments than the left is today.

I have news for Douthat. Assuming that what he means by ‘liberalism’ is just ‘atheism’ or ‘secularism’, as he so clearly seems to, he should realize it is a metaphysical platform: its ontology is bereft of a Supreme Being, of a non-human scale of value, of a purpose that  somehow transcends human strivings and value-construction.

Let me offer my answer to Douthat’s question: Because political debate in this country, one in which an atheist will never be elected president, is still, all too often, susceptible to, and hijacked by, the religiosity on display in Tippett’s letter, one which infects all too many of our political representatives. Where the ‘landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction,’ it has done so in those spaces where its progress is not so impeded. The legalization of marijuana is a good example; the abortion debate shows the limits of American ‘individualism’ in a domain where religion and sexism rule the roost. (Gay marriage is a notable exception.) Perhaps too, physician-assisted suicide is a complicated issue in a country where healthcare costs–especially end-of-life ones–are astronomical, where the terminally ill, besides not being mentally competent to make such decisions, might feel the pressure to end their lives to not be a financial burden on those left behind. It is in these issues that the real complexity lies. Here, the theological will have little to contribute, transfixed as it is by a vision of a purpose to human suffering invisible to all too many.

Beyonce And The Singularity

A couple of decades ago, I strolled through Washington Square Park on a warm summer night, idly observing the usual hustle and bustle of students, tourists, drunks, buskers,  hustlers, stand-up comedians, and sadly, folks selling oregano instead of good-to-honest weed. As I did so, I noticed a young man, holding up flyers and yelling, ‘Legalize Marijuana! Impeach George Bush! [Sr., not Jr., though either would have done just fine.].”  I walked over, and asked for a flyer. Was a new political party being floated with these worthy objectives as central platform  issues? Was there a political movement afoot, one worthy of my support? Was a meeting being called?

The flyers were for a punk rock band’s live performance the following night–at a club, a block or so away. Clickbait, you see, is as old as the hills.

Clickbait works. From the standard ‘You won’t believe what this twelve-year old did to get his divorced parents back together’ to ‘Ten signs your daughter is going to date a loser in high school’, to ‘Nine ways you are wasting money everyday’ – they all work. You are intrigued; you click; the hit-count goes up; little counters spin; perhaps some unpaid writer gets paid as a threshold is crossed; an advertiser forks out money to the site posting the link. Or something like that. It’s all about the hits; they keep the internet engine running; increasing their number justifies any means.

Many a writer finds out that the headlines for their posts changed to something deemed more likely to bring in readers. They often do not agree with these changes–especially when irate readers complain about their misleading nature. This becomes especially pernicious when trash talking about a piece of writing spreads–based not on its content, but on its headline, one not written by the author, but dreamed up by a website staffer instructed to do anything–anything!–to increase the day’s hit-count.

A notable personal instance of this phenomenon occurred with an essay I wrote for The Nation a little while ago. My original title for the essay was: was Programs, Not Just People, Can Violate Your Privacy. I argued that smart programs could violate privacy just like humans could, and that the standard defense used by their deployers–“Don’t worry, no humans are reading your email”–was deliberately and dangerously misleading. I then went to suggest granting a limited form of legal agency to these programs–so that their deployers could be understood as their legal principals and hence, attributed their knowledge and made liable for their actions. I acknowledged the grant of personhood as a legal move that would also solve this problem, but that was not the main thrust of my argument–the grant of legal agency to invoke agency law would be enough.

My essay went online as Programs Are People, Too. It was a catchy title, but it was clickbait. And it created predictable misunderstanding: many readers–and non-readers–simply assumed I was arguing for greater ‘legal rights’ for programs, and immediately put me down as some kind of technophilic anti-humanist. Ironically, someone arguing for the protection of user rights online was pegged as arguing against them. The title was enough to convince them of it. I had thought my original title was more accurate and certainly seemed catchy enough to me. Not so apparently for the folks who ran The Nation‘s site. C’est la vie.

As for Beyonce, I have no idea what she thinks about the singularity.