The Visually Sophisticated Society and “Seeing is Believing”

In 1980, Stephen Jay Gould and Steven Selden sent their copy of H.H Goddard‘s The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness to James H. Wallace, director of Photographic Services at the Smithsonian Institution. The photographs in Goddard’s book of the supposedly “feeble-minded” family had appeared to confirm their mental infirmity:

All have a depraved look about them. Their mouths are sinister in appearance; their eyes are darkened slits.


But as the photograph above indicates, and as Wallace noted:

There can be no doubt that the photographs of the Kallikak family members have been retouched. Further, it appears that this retouching was limited to the facial features of the individuals involved–specifically eyes, eyebrows, mouths, nose and hair. By contemporary standards, this retouching is extremely crude and obvious.

The intellectual dishonesty on display in Goddard’s work is but a small sample of the many instances noted in Gould’s critique of biological determinism, The Mismeasure of Man  (W. W. Norton, New York, 1980).

Of interest too, is what Wallace went on to say in his response to Gould and Selden:

 It should be remembered, however, that at the time of the original publication of the book, our society was far less visually sophisticated. The widespread use of photographs was limited, and casual viewers of the time would not have nearly the comparative ability possessed by even pre-teenage children today….

 The “visual sophistication” that Wallace indicates is, of course, a function of the greater prominence of the visual in modern society. Photographs, digital and analog, and moving images, whether those of the movies or television, are our commonplace companions; we record our lives, their humble and exalted moments, through a bewildering arrays of technologies and methods. Our blogs and other forms of social media are awash in these images. If the cultures that preceded ours were verbal, we are increasingly visual. Our future masterpieces might increasingly be drawn from this domain.

This swamping of our senses and sensibilities produces a greater refinement of our visual concepts and judgments. Modern cinephiles speak knowledgeably and effortlessly of cinematic palettes and visual grammars; admirers of photographers’ works offer esoteric evaluations of their correspondingly complex productions. We consider such discourses exceedingly commonplace; we are, after all, creatures whose dominant sensory modality is sight, able to examine their world from the microscopic to the macroscopic scale, from the beginning of their lives to their ends, through images.

Wallace’s invocation of our increased “visual sophistication” appropriately enough arises in the context of retouching. We are used to the altered digital image, the restored old photograph, the enhanced and corrected draft photograph; we return from vacations with a camera full of digital photos; we understand their final displayed product will be a modified one, lights and darks and colors and shades all expertly changed by our photo processing software, our clumsiness and inexpertness cleverly altered and polished out.

We are, by now, accustomed to the notion that seeing is not believing but rather, the opening salvo in a series of investigations.

Police or Wanna-Be Commandos?

You might have noticed your local police force starting to look increasingly militarized, wearing riot-gear like the type Glenn sports in The Walking Dead, and armed with not just weaponry like Rick Grimes‘ but with an attitude as bad as Merle‘s. Don’t worry, it’s part of a nation-wide trend of SWATting local police:

Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, estimates that SWAT teams were deployed about 3,000 times in 1980 but are now used around 50,000 times a year. Some cities use them for routine patrols in high-crime areas. Baltimore and Dallas have used them to break up poker games. In 2010 New Haven, Connecticut sent a SWAT team to a bar suspected of serving under-age drinkers. That same year heavily-armed police raided barber shops around Orlando, Florida; they said they were hunting for guns and drugs but ended up arresting 34 people for “barbering without a licence”. Maricopa County, Arizona sent a SWAT team into the living room of Jesus Llovera, who was suspected of organising cockfights. Police rolled a tank into Mr Llovera’s yard and killed more than 100 of his birds, as well as his dog. According to Mr Kraska, most SWAT deployments are not in response to violent, life-threatening crimes, but to serve drug-related warrants in private homes.

He estimates that 89% of police departments serving American cities with more than 50,000 people had SWAT teams in the late 1990s—almost double the level in the mid-1980s. By 2007 more than 80% of police departments in cities with between 25,000 and 50,000 people had them, up from 20% in the mid-1980s.

Many young men in the US with bullying issues resolve them through alcohol binges, picking street-fights, playing video-games with impressive body-counts, or raping women. Yet others, savvy enough to realize that modern policing offers you a real-life video game with real ninety-seven pounders to be kicked around, sign up for a tour of duty of America’s war zones (its cities), where hostiles (their colored residents) roam (walk), skulk (hang out on corners) and hide (stay indoors).

It’s just like that game Urban SWAT Force: you pick up a signal that crackles over your gleaming black radio, you answer snappily, employing those mnemonics so beloved of military commanders calling in artillery strikes, “Echo Romeo Oscar Yankee! Heading East on Sixteenth!”, you gun the engine, feeling that horsepower spring you forward, even as it pins you in your car seat, propelling you down that blacktop toward the ‘target’ cunningly disguised as a home. Then, time for the crouching attack, the battering ram on the door, the rush inside as stun-grenades go off, deafening everyone but you. Then, finally, the moment you were waiting for: as wailing women and children cower and beg, you open fire, emptying magazines into anything, and I mean anything, that moves: curtains, pets, goldfish, they’re all fair game.

Sometimes grannies bite the dust:

In 2006 Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman in Atlanta, mistook the police for robbers and fired a shot from an old pistol. Police shot her five times, killing her. After the shooting they planted marijuana in her home. It later emerged that they had falsified the information used to obtain their no-knock warrant.

It’s a jungle out there. Only the thin blue line protects us.

Ending the NCAA’s Plantation Racket

In Kevin Smith‘s Chasing Amy, Banky tries to talk Holden out of his crush on Amy:

Banky Edwards: Alright, now see this? This is a four-way road, okay? And dead in the center is a crisp, new, hundred dollar bill. Now, at the end of each of these streets are four people, okay? You following?

Holden: Yeah.

Banky Edwards: Good. Over here, we have a male-affectionate, easy to get along with, non-political agenda lesbian. Down here, we have a man-hating, angry as fuck, agenda of rage, bitter dyke. Over here, we got Santa Claus, and up here the Easter Bunny. Which one is going to get to the hundred dollar bill first?

Holden: What is this supposed to prove?

Banky Edwards: No, I’m serious. This is a serious exercise. It’s like an SAT question. Which one is going to get to the hundred dollar bill first? The male-friendly lesbian, the man-hating dyke, Santa Claus, or the Easter bunny?

Holden: The man-hating dyke.

Banky Edwards: Good. Why?

Holden: I don’t know.

Banky Edwards: [shouting] Because the other three are figments of your fucking imagination!

As I read news of the National Labor Relations Board‘s decision that college players have the right to unionize and allow myself a brief celebration of this victory for common sense, I also prepare myself for the inevitable defenses of the NCAA and its racket–college sports–from folks whom, in my kindest moments, I can only describe as deluded. It is for their sake that I have excerpted Banky’s rant above, for it could be easily rewritten with its three mythical creatures replaced by: the principled NCAA executive, the truthful NCAA lawyer and the honest college sport administrator. And standing over it all, the hallucination of the amateur student-athlete, who plays for passion and pride. Not money. No sir, not that filthy stuff, so visible in prices of season tickets, the salaries of coaches, administrators, the values of television rights deals, the spanking new sports facilities, gyms and stadiums.

Read the NLRB’s ruling and read the descriptions of college football players’ training and game routines, and ask yourself whether those descriptions accord with your sense of a college student playing sports on the side while he pursues a degree as his main vocation. Or do they better describe professional athletes who study a bit on the side? A choice sample:

During this time [football season], the players devote 40 to 50 hours per week to football-related activities, including travel to and from their scheduled games.

College sports is a plantation racket, from start to finish. Hold out promises of unimaginable riches to a community desperate for economic upliftment, pay them peanuts, shackle them to draconian codes of conduct enforced by hypocrites, all the while enriching yourself. That’s how it works. The student-athlete, the scholarship, the education in exchange for a few games; they sure do sustain a great deal of fantasy don’t they?

Thank you for tearing down the non-unionized wall, Mr. Ohr. Now, hopefully, later this year, the judges in O’Bannon vs. NCAA will take the necessary next steps.

Schopenhauer on Revealing Our True Feelings

Thus spake Schopenhauer:

If you want to know how you really feel about someone take note of the impression an unexpected letter from him makes on you when you first see it on the doormat.¹

Why does Schopenhauer imagine that these kinds of reactions of ours would be particularly revealing of our ‘true’ feelings towards our acquaintances? One can hazard some educated guesses.

First, Schopenhauer suggests that on hearing from someone unexpectedly, we are caught off-guard, unprepared by social conditioning and convention, unable to fall back on safe, canned responses.  Thus, our first reaction is very likely to be an instinctive one, a ‘true’ indicator of our visceral, deeply rooted feelings. (There is also the small matter of the fact that more often than not, we will be alone when we pick up the mail and thus, unlikely to be putting on a performance for anyone else.) Schopenhauer deliberately does not suggest that our true feelings would be revealed during a chance personal encounter with an old acquaintance; for then our reactions would be affected by his presence, his eyes upon us.  We might then ‘perform’ for him. Rather, we must be made conscious of our acquaintance without feeling we need to ‘perform’ for him and conform to his expectations of how we would respond to his presence, his station in life, his role in ours. (Presumably, Schopenhauer might think we would have a similarly authentic reaction were we to unexpectedly encounter someone’s letter or photograph in a personal collection of ours; there again, we would be alone and able to respond unguardedly and unselfconsciously.)

Second, Schopenhauer suggests that most social encounters are well-defined and circumscribed ones, their parameters of acceptable behavioral responses quite clearly delineated by all manners of social norms, conventions and niceties; in these settings, we are not being ourselves but are rather, playing very particular roles. As he notes elsewhere in his essays:

There is an unconscious appositeness in the use of the word person to designate the human individual, as it is done in all European languages: for persona means an actor’s mask, and it is true that no one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role.

Here Schopenhauer takes refuge in the unnecessary essentialism of ‘himself as he is’. While this is perhaps unsurprising for someone so fond of the otherwise incomprehensible notion of ‘thing-in-itself‘, he could well have rested content with noting that what we consider someone’s personality is merely the sum total of these roles. There is nothing left over once these roles are accounted for. As the first aphorism suggests, Schopenhauer does think there is a ‘genuine core’ left over. But perhaps even our reaction to the unexpected letter might be a kind of role-playing, one performed for the ever-present witness of our selves. Certainly, in the conversations–sometimes silent, sometimes not–we have with ourselves all day long, we constantly acknowledge the presence of this other.


1. Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, ‘On Psychology’, R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin, New York, p. 171.

American Workers to Bosses: You’re Always Right

Rebecca Schuman recently noted the case of an academic job applicant who lost out on a job offer because she dared negotiate:

[A] job candidate identified as “W” recently received an offer for a tenure-track position at Nazareth College… W viewed the original bid as the opening move in a series of negotiations, and thus submitted… [a] counteroffer, after informing the department—with whom she says she had been in friendly contact—that she was about to switch into “negotiation mode”…..However, instead of coming back with a severely tempered counter-counter (“$57k, maternity, and LOL”), or even a “Take it or leave it, bub,” Nazareth allegedly rescinded the entire offer.

So far, so strange. But it gets worse:

[A]s the story spread over the academic Web faster than a case of resurgent measles, it became increasingly clear that not everybody was flabbergasted. According to many outspoken residents of the ivory tower, W’s mildly aggressive email committed so many unforgivable faux pas that she’s lucky she’s not in jail….How dare this “women” think she could attempt to secure a better life for herself and her family? In this market, if a university wants her to wade around in pig crap, her only counteroffer should be: “Should I bring my own snorkel?” Any beginning academic who tries to stand up for herself is lunch for the hordes of traumatized ivory-tower zombies, themselves now irreversibly infected with the obsequious self-devaluation and totalizing cowardice that go by the monikers “collegiality” and “a good fit.”….

[I]n a substantial portion of the academic discussion, she is being eviscerated, all for having the audacity to stick up for herself for the first (and possibly last) time in her career.

Schuman is right, of course. But W‘s case is not just about academics and their craven kowtowing to bosses. Rather, the reaction to W, the anger at her temerity in speaking up for herself, for daring to suggest to those that sought to employ her that she might want to say something about her working conditions, is a symptom of a broader American worker response: the wholesale adoption of the attitude that the Boss is Always Right.

As I’ve noted in my posts on labor unions (here; here;  here; here; here), there is a curious rejection underway–in the strangest of places, workers’ communities–of the notion of that employees and workers should attempt to change their workplace conditions, demand better wages and hours, or just push back in any way at managerial control. The workplace is where good old American enterprise and self-determination is to be denied to the worker; any evidence that the worker seeks to exercise his agency in demand better working conditions can only be interpreted as indications of bad faith on the worker’s part.

The academic workplace is no different: its workers are subjected to the same relentlessly myopic administrative procedures, the same ideological assaults, as other workplaces.   And they have taken on and internalized, rather effortlessly, managerial perspectives and attitudes. Foremost among them: resentment and anger directed at those workers who seek to assert their right to a better life.

Carl Sagan’s Glorious Dawn: The Promise of Cosmos

The YouTube video titled “A Glorious Dawn” starring Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking (their voices run through Auto-Tune), and snippets from Sagan’s epic Cosmos, has now racked up almost nine million views and twenty-seven thousand comments since it was first put up sometime back in 2009. (Mysteriously, in addition to its seventy-seven thousand ‘Likes’ it has also attracted over a thousand thumbs-downs. There’s no pleasing some people.)

To that count of nine million views I have made several dozen contributions. And cheesily enough, on each occasion, I have detected a swelling, a lump in my throat, and sometimes even, most embarrassingly, a slight moistening of the eyes. I am a grown man, supposedly well above such trite sentimentality. What gives?

Like many of those that write those glowing comments on YouTube, I too watched Cosmos as a youngster. I learned a great deal of astronomy and the history of science from it and watched each episode diligently, as it was shown, every Sunday, on the national television network. Cosmos wasn’t perfect and without fault; even as a teenager, I felt Sagan’s supposed docu-opus was flawed. Many of its segments felt tedious and heavy-handed and Sagan was not an ideal story-teller. (Many contemporary critiques of Cosmos made these points, often accusing Sagan of treating Cosmos as a vehicle of self-indulgence.) But I don’t think my current reactions to that clever YouTubed homage to Sagan and science are grounded in anything like a sophisticated cinematic assessment of Cosmos as a science documentary; their manifestations speak of something far more visceral underpinning them.

I react the way I do to “A Glorious Dawn” because when I watch it I am reminded of a kind of naiveté, one that infected a part of life with a very distinct sense of possibility; I am reminded indeed, of an older personality, an older way of looking at the world. You could call this simple nostalgia for childhood; I think you’d be partially right. This nostalgia has many components, of course. Then, science, its methods and its knowledge, seemed sacrosanct; its history the most glorious record of human achievement, rising above its sordid record in other domains. It seemed to document a long struggle against many forms of intellectual and political tyranny. Because I was a student of science then–if only in school–I felt myself tapping into a long and glorious tradition, becoming part of a distinguished stream of humans possessed of epistemic and moral rectitude. And because I felt myself to have just barely begun my studies, I sensed a long, colorful, adventure–perhaps as dramatic as those that I had seen depicted in Cosmos‘ many episodes–lay ahead of me.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I traveled through Puerto Rico, making the usual stops at beaches and rainforests. On our list of must-see destinations was  the Arecibo Observatory, whose gigantic radio telescope dish I had seen in Cosmos:


As I posed for photographs that beautiful day, even though I was aware I had traveled–in many ways–far away from the viewpoints my earlier self had entertained in its first encounters with Cosmos, I could still feel their tugging at me, still provoking in me an unvarnished sense of wonderment.


Hankering for a ‘Comfortable’ Past

In Home: A Short History of an Idea (Penguin: New York, 1986, pp. 213) Witold Rybczynski writes:

If department stores or home-decorating magazines are any indication, most people’s first choice would be to live in rooms that resemble, as much as their budgets permit, those of their grandparents….such nostalgia is absent from other periods of our everyday lives. We do not pine for period cuisine. Our concern for health and nutrition has altered the way that we eat, as well as what we eat; our admiration for the slim physique would be puzzling to the corpulent nineteenth century. We have changed our way of speaking, our manners, and our public and private behavior. We do not feel the need to revive the practice of leaving visiting cards…or of indulging in extended, chaperoned courtship….Unless we are collectors, we do not drive antique cars. We want automobiles that are less expensive to operate, safer, and more comfortable, but we do not imagine that these improvements can be achieved by resurrecting car models from previous periods. We would feel as odd in a Model T as we would in plus fours or a hooped skirt, yet although we would not think of dressing in period clothes, we find nothing strange in dressing our homes in period decor.

Nostalgia for the past is often a sign of dissatisfaction with the present….the modern interior…represents an attempt…to change social habits, and even to alter the underlying cultural meaning of domestic comfort….People turn to the past because they are looking for something they do not find in the present–comfort and well-being.

“Comfort,” of course, is the notion that Rybczynski has devoted Home to developing:

[A]n invention–a cultural artifice. Like all cultural ideas…it has a past, and it cannot be understood without reference to its specific history….domestic comfort involves a range of attributes–convenience, efficiency, leisure, ease, pleasure, domesticity, intimacy, and privacy.

Hankering for the past in our domestic interiors–but not elsewhere in our lives–makes especial sense in light of the importance assigned to those spaces as settings for the emergence of an individual self, for the development of still-contested notions of privacy, family and sexual relations. It is where human beings begin lives and learn language. It beckons thus as a space of return–sometimes by changing furnishings. And if the interiors of domestic spaces filled up as the interior lives of their residents did, then conversely changing those lives could perhaps be best achieved by changing domestic spaces.

Of course, this act of restorative nostalgia, this seeking out our missing comfort in the interiors of the past, as domestic comfort, as furnishing for our private lives, has never been a low-cost endeavor. Those able to experience this form of nostalgia then, are enabled by their stations in life, their class. Comfort remains an economic privilege (as perhaps, does “dissatisfaction with the present”?) Many may want their homes, their private spaces, to resemble, in overt appearance and function, the homes they dimly remember from a romanticized past, but only a very particular subset is able to indulge that want.