Of Children’s Pencil Boxes And Ersatz Smartphones

It’s a simple enough object: a pencil box that looks like a smartphone. The box’s lid looks like a smartphone screen decked out with app icons, the ones that all of us smartphone users are used to: the phone, the messages, the various entertainments, the calculator, and so on. Pencil boxes have been decorated and adorned in many ways over the years; this happens to be the latest one that our civilization has devised for it. (My school days pencil box was covered with various geometrical shapes; presumably the manufacturers assumed that I would be spending my class days constructing the figures that lay within the box: a pencil, ruler, compass, divider, and a protractor.) But it is not just the decoration of the pencil box that approximates the smartphone’s look and feel; it is also sized similarly, thus rendering the simulation ever more realistic. Especially if you are only a child, who has not used a real smartphone but has merely seen others using them around it. Of course, the more you play with this ersatz phone the more you realize just how removed its functionality is from the real thing; it makes you want the real thing even more. Which is what it is supposed to do; to the children who play with it.

My daughter is the proud owner of once such pencil box. I’m her disgruntled father. A year or so ago, she, by exerting that unique species of emotional pressure that only a four-year old can, managed to convince her mother to buy the smartphone-pencil box for her. But she had been relentlessly enticed herself: over the course of a few mornings, by a glittering array of such temptations placed directly in her path when she walked into her pre-school’s lobby. A vendor of these ‘toys’ had struck a deal with the pre-school; presumably they would sell their goods to the children, relying on them to badger their parents; proceeds would be shared with the school. My daughter had, of course, seen both my wife and I using our smartphones; she had often reached out to them and we had, with varying measures of success, resisted her advances. But not on this occasion; my wife succumbed, and my daughter had her way.

I’ve been a parent for some five years now, and so I’ve become accustomed to the scale and reach of the child-industrial complex, that giant consumer good industry dedicated to selling you stuff for your children. Still, something about the utter cynicism of this particular maneuver, the unholy alliance struck between the vendor and the school (a private one with a few seats reserved for children in New York City’s free pre-K program), stood out for me. Addiction to smartphones and social media is not a minor problem for today’s children, and one of the hardest decisions a (privileged) parent has to make these day is to decide when to let their child have access to these. To see a school allow a vendor to sell such products was astonishing to say the very least. But the commodified logic of this world will brook no interference with its plans to sell to all and sundry.

I’m sad to say that I did not do too much beyond my initial reaction of irritation (I could have, for instance, had a word with the school’s principal); I was worn out by too many parenting discussions and besides, some other childcare crisis had already presented itself for resolution. So I moved on. My daughter still has the pencil box and I’m still holding out the hope that she will grow tired of it in the right way: by finding something literary or artistic or musical that will hold her attention in more fulfilling ways.

Nietzsche’s ‘Supreme Principle of Education’

Nietzsche claims that the “supreme principle of education” is that “one should only offer food  to him who hungers for it.” That is, roughly, teaching should be guided not by the requirements of an abstract, generalized curriculum, but by the expressed needs of the learner. In keeping with Nietzsche’s generalized aristocratic and hierarchical sensibilities, education is not for all; it is only for those who express a desire to learn. Moreover, what they wish to learn will be guided by this desire, this hunger; they will not accept a substitute deemed necessary or desirable for them by some planner or designer of an educational system. Find out who wants to learn, and what they desire to learn (and why); education is thereby facilitated, and indeed, only becomes possible under these circumstances.

Nietzsche suggests that rather than having mathematics and physics forced upon us in the form of “thousands of…annoying, mortifying, irritating problems” our education should show us, in response to our lived experience of the world, that we “needed a knowledge of science and mathematics.” We should turn, perplexed by our interactions with a mysterious world that seems to embody regularities, to those whom we think know better and ask for guidance. Then, perhaps, we might find “delight in science.”

Needless to say, very little in our educational systems resembles the implementation of the prescription that Nietzsche offers here. They resemble instead, giant factories, which prepare and condition students for the world; rather than responding to the students’ hunger–of which they have plenty, even if inarticulately expressed–they seek to inculcate in them a hunger for a particular set of socially chosen aims and goals and ends. They are factories of ideology; they impress upon the student a value system that prepares them for efficient functioning in the world to which they are preparing to enter. A student might ‘choose’ a major but little about this choice is free; the student has been instructed and channeled for so long that his or her choices are all too plausibly viewed as the resultant effect of the various ‘educational’ (ideological) constraints  placed upon his or her learning.

A straightforward, ‘practical’ assessment of Nietzsche’s philosophy of education is that it is ‘impractical’ and implausible: students need to instructed, by those who know better, what they need to learn, so that they may make their way through this world as best as possible. But it is our desires, our ends, that predominate this discussion; there is little consultation with the students. Such an attitude is forced upon us, for we are in a terrible hurry to train our students, our children, and to send them out into the world to be productive and useful. There is a timetable of educational markers waiting after all; can we afford to let children play and explore and attempt to figure out this world and their educational needs for themselves when everyone knows that a child of four years must begin formal schooling in preschool and be out of high-school by the age of eighteen? Moreover, who has the time? Parents cannot spend such time with their children; they have to go to work, and must leave their children with other caretakers. Our society cannot afford so many little parasites running around, contributing little to the national GDP.  This is our train and it is headed for distant stations; there is no room for stragglers here, no time to seek out the hungry and ask what will nourish them.

Note: Excerpts from Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1991, Book III, Section 195, p. 115)

Max Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’: Who Will Bend Its Bars?

Yesterday morning, as the students in my Social Philosophy class and I discussed an excerpt from Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit of Capitalism, we ran out of time. As my students got up and started to head out for their next commitment (work or the next class), I began reading out loud the following passage:

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

I’m glad to say that at least two or three students halted in their tracks and were visibly moved (by Weber’s writing, not by my sonorous reading.) This remarkable conclusion to Weber’s classic work has not lost any of its power to amaze over the years: it is–as the Wikipedia entry for the book notes, “prescient”–it is poetic, it is wistful, it is also, I think, angry.

The “last ton of fossilized coal” is not yet burnt, the last barrel of oil is not yet extracted, so much damage remains to be done. Many rivers remain to be choked with waste and refuse, many mountainsides are still to be devastated by strip mining, many seas–and their denizens–are not fully clogged with plastic; the temperatures of the worlds oceans and atmosphere are still inching upwards; many communities remain to be immiserated. Meanwhile, our lives become ever more machinic, controlled and administered by Big Data and Big Banks, while fascists and corporate lackeys compete for the highest echelons of power.

Vacations and leisure time shrink, we spend less time with our families; to ask for more, for another bowl, is to ask for a resounding blow about our ears with the boss’ ladle. Nose to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel: that is where our salvation awaits. We will find deliverance in an office cubicle, the modern zone of spiritual connection with the higher powers that control our lives. When evening rolls around, the iron cage is unlocked and we are let out on furlough, with the reminder that ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ Do not tarry too long with the family; hurry back soon; they cannot give you what work can.

Who will bend the bars of this cage? Not the jailers.

Note: Erez Maggor, a doctoral student in sociology at New York University, has pointed me to an essay by Peter Baehr titled “The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the abstract for which reads:

In the climax to The Protestant Ethic, Max Weber writes of the stahlhartes Gehäuse that modern capitalism has created, a concept that Talcott Parsons famously rendered as the “iron cage.” This article examines the status of Parsons’s canonical translation; the putative sources of its imagery (in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress); and the more complex idea that Weber himself sought to evoke with the “shell as hard as steel”: a reconstitution of the human subject under bureaucratic capitalism in which “steel” becomes emblematic of modernity. Steel, unlike the “element” iron, is a product of human fabrication. It is both hard and potentially flexible. Further, whereas a cage confines human agents, but leaves their powers otherwise intact, a “shell” suggests that modern capitalism has created a new kind of being. After examining objections to this interpretation, I argue that whatever the problems with Parsons’s “iron cage” as a rendition of Weber’s own metaphor, it has become a “traveling idea,” a fertile coinagein its own right, an intriguing example of how the translator’s imagination can impose itself influentially on the text and its readers.

CP Snow On ‘The Rich And The Poor’

In 1959, while delivering his soon-to-be-infamous Rede Lectures on ‘The Two Cultures‘ at Cambridge University, C. P. Snow–in the third section, titled ‘The Rich and the Poor’–said,

[T]he people in the industrialised countries are getting richer, and those in the non-industrialised countries are at best standing still: so that the gap between the industrialised countries and the rest is widening every day. On the world scale this is the gap between the rich and the poor….Life for the overwhelming majority of mankind has always been nasty, brutish and short. It is so in the poor countries still.

This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed. It has been noticed, most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor. Just because they have noticed it, it won’t last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t. Once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor. It’s just not on. [C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press, Canto Classics, pp. 42]

Well, well, what extraordinary, almost touching, optimism.

Sir Charles did not understand, or care to, perhaps, the extraordinary pertinacity of the rich, those in power, their capacity to manipulate political and economic systems, their almost total control of consciousness and imagination, their ability to promulgate the central principles of the ideology that drives the economic inequality of this world to ever higher levels. (Snow was certainly correct that the world would not remain ‘half rich and half poor’ – that fraction, an always inaccurate one, tilts more now in the direction of the one percent–ninety-nine percent formulation made famous by Occupy Wall Street.)

Snow was also, as many commentators pointed out at the time in critical responses to his lectures, in the grip of an untenable optimism about the ameliorating effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions on both the world of nature and man: as their effects would spread, bringing in their wake material prosperity and intellectual enlightenment, old social and political structures would give way. But science and technology can comfortably co-exist with reactionary politics; they can be easily deployed to prop up repressive regimes; they can be just as easily used to prop up economic and political injustice as not. There is ample evidence for these propositions in the behavior of modern governments, who for instance, deploy the most sophisticated tools of electronic surveillance to keep their citizens under watch, acquiescent and obedient. And automation, that great savior of human labor, which was supposed to make our lives less ‘nasty and brutish’ might instead, when it takes root in such unequal societies, put all workers out to pasture.

But let us allow ourselves to be captured by the hope shown in Snow’s lectures that such radical inequality as was on display in 1959 and thereafter, cannot be a stable state of affairs. Then we might still anticipate that at some point in the future, armed with–among other tools–the right scientific and technical spanners to throw into the wheels of the political and economic juggernaut that runs over them, the poor will finally rise up.

Snowpiercer: The Train As Capitalist Society And The Universe

Post-apocalyptic art–whether literature or movies–is provided, sometimes all too easily, ample opportunity for flirting with the grand, for making sweeping statements about human nature and the meaning and purpose of life. After all, it’s the (often violent) end of the world. Time to speculate about the new, phoenix-like world that may rise from the ashes of the old, or to mourn the loss of not-easily replaced intangible moral goods of a world gone missing.  So it is unsurprising that SnowpiercerBong Joon-ho‘s English-language debut, swings for the fences.  It is initially grounded in a facile morality play about global warming, man’s persistently failed and hubristic attempts to play God, and the evils of science. There is more to it though. The ark-like train which is the movie’s stage and centerpiece, which circles the world carrying the survivors of a world frozen over, functions as an extended allegory for capitalist society, its economic inequality, its class structures and exploitation of the weak, its decadence and immorality,  the inevitable revolt of the oppressed, and their rise to the top (or the front).

But Snowpiercer is more intellectually ambitious than that. It also to aims to be an allegory that flirts with God, the Universe, Free Will, Evil, Freedom and Existential Choice. It offers us commentary on ideology and false consciousness and propaganda; it shows us how man may be tempted by evil and can choose moral redemption instead. The structure of the train and the progressively enlightening journey of the rear passengers through its various compartments suggest too that Dante’s Inferno and the Pilgrim’s Progress could be invoked here with some ease. (Ironically, for an allegory, Snowpiercer is sometimes a little too literal and heavy-handed. Yes, man, with all his cunning and scheming, can play the part of a devious God, and God may just be our notion of human powers and goodness and judgment extrapolated to an unimaginable extreme, but these theses can be advanced with a little more subtlety than Snowpiercer allows.)

Snowpiercer‘s grand ambitions are sometimes realized and sometimes not.  Mostly they are not realized because Snowpiercer spends a little too much time trying to be an action movie. Its showings off of technical virtuosity, its nods to the video game and martial arts genres with their extended bloodiness, their glorying in gore, their stylized slow-motion combat, are distractions and deceits. (This action initially provides a possibly invigorating jolt to the movie’s plot, but all too soon it becomes tedious, deadening, and in the movie’s closing stages it is a distraction.) There is much in the movie that is visually interesting and provocative, much that should have been allowed to come to rest in the viewer for to facilitate reflection and introspection.  But this does not happen, largely because the movie believes that some rather archaic cinematic tropes–physical conflict rages elsewhere while two protagonists engage in philosophical debate!–must be relied on to in order to build and generate tension.

All too often, I find myself describing science-fiction movies as missed opportunities. This is one such.

Why You Hate Work (And Will Continue To)

Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath tell us why we hate work. (“Why You Hate Work“, New York Times, May 30, 2014; the “You” in their title article is less inclusive than it appears, for the primary focus of their study is white-collar workers. Still, perhaps there are lessons here to be learned by all.)

Their article has a familiar feel to it: there are several dimensions to employee satisfaction; employees do better and feel better when they are satisfied in those; employers are not sensitive to these spaces of desire; they ignore them, being all too easily satisfied with the fulfillment of work demands.

Put another way: employees are humans with needs; the workplace doesn’t meet them; the workplace-boss-employee relationship is asymmetrical.

Color me surprised.

Schwartz and Porath make recommendations to improve workplace environments: invest in employees; pay them enough; give them breaks; praise them; and so on.

It is tempting to say this is all common-sense, a temptation that finds its grounding in the utterly unsurprising nature of these recommendations. After all, who’da thunk it: humans need rest, adequate wage for labor, a little encouragement?

We have known for a very long time that ‘work’ is a four-letter word. The dichotomies are familiar. Work-bad; leisure-good; weekday-weekend; boss-friend; the list is easily extended (and extendable.) Everybody’s working for the weekend, after all.

A clue to why the Schwartz and Porath study might be cited extensively but almost certainly will not have its recommendations followed–once the initial hubbub following the publication of their Op-Ed in the nation’s leading newspaper has died down–may be found in the fact that while the word “profitability” shows up in their article, “short-term profits”, “shareholders”, “capitalism”, “first-quarter earnings” (and other such gems) do not.

Perhaps you might have guessed where I’m going with this: creating a workplace that keeps employees happy and satisfied has costs associated with it; these costs bite into profits, especially short-term ones;  employee satisfaction, to put it bluntly, is incompatible–economically–with short-term profits and quarterly earning reports; ergo, there is little chance the recommendations for the creation of such workspaces will be implemented.

There is something particularly terrifying about repetition compulsion: the endless recycling of a past, its contours showing up again and again to haunt the neurotic. Modern business is similarly afflicted; it rules over armies of the disgruntled, determine to repeatedly lurch from one past mistake to another, resolved to not make the changes that might palliate the suffering of those in its embrace.

This commentary of mine is incomplete; there is a more thoughtful, historically sophisticated take possible on our understanding (starting, perhaps, with the notion that ‘work’ was done by slaves.) More on that in another post in the near future.

Note: A budding neuroscientist might be interested in conducting an fMRI study in which it would be ascertained which brain centers were activated when subjects viewed the word ‘work’ or were asked to perform tasks that were described as ‘work.’  Performance on the latter could be compared with that of a control group which performed the same tasks not described as ‘work.’

Dostoyevsky’s Gambler on the French and the Russians

Dostoyevsky‘s The Gambler, contains, like some of his other works, sweeping portraits of character types; in this quasi-autobiographical work, among others, those of a particular nationality.

First, then, the gambler, Alexey Ivanovitch, on the French:

De Grieux was like all Frenchmen; that is, gay and polite when necessary and profitable to be so, and insufferably tedious when the necessity to be gay and polite was over. A Frenchman is not often naturally polite. He is always polite, as it were, to order, a little out of the ordinary, then his freakishness is most stupid and unnatural, and is made up of long accepted and long-vulgarized traditions. The natural Frenchman is composed of the most plebeian, petty, ordinary practical sense–in fact, he is one of the most wearisome creatures in the world. In my opinion, only the most innocent and experienced–especially Russian young ladies–are fascinated by Frenchmen. To every decent person, the conventionalism of the established traditions of drawing-room politeness, ease and gaiety are at once evident and intolerable.

Then, by way of contrast, on the French and the Russians :

You simply take for granted that I don’t know how to behave with dignity, that is, perhaps I am a man of moral dignity, but that I don’t know how to behave with dignity….Yes, all Russians are like that; and do you know why? Because Russians are too richly endowed and many-sided to be able readily to evolve a code of manners. It is a question of good form. For the most part we Russians are so richly endowed that we need genius to evolve our code of manners. And genius is most often absent, for, indeed, it is a rarity at all times. It’s only among the French, and perhaps some other Europeans, that the code of manners is so well defined that one may have an air of the utmost dignity and yet be a man of no moral dignity whatsoever.

And finally, in a revealing passage, given Dostoyevsky’s own troubles with gambling, on the Russians again:

Hearing what I had lost, the Frenchman observed bitingly, even spitefully, that one ought to have more sense. He added–I don’t know why–that though a great many Russians gamble, Russians were not, in his opinion, well qualified even for gambling.

“In my mind,” said I, “roulette is simply made for Russians.”

And when at my challenge the Frenchman laughed contemptuously, I observed that I was, of course, right, for to speak of the Russians as gamblers was abusing them far more than praising them, and so I might be believed.

“On what do you base your opinion?” asked the Frenchman.

“On the fact that the faculty of amassing capital has, with the progress of history taken a place–and almost the foremost place–among the virtues and the merits of the civilized man of the West. The Russian is not only incapable of amassing capital, but disputes it in a reckless and unseemly way. Nevertheless we Russians need money, too,” I added, “and consequently, we are very glad and very eager to make use of such means as roulette, for instance, in which one can grow rich all at once, in two hours, without work. That’s very fascinating to us, and since we play badly, recklessly, without taking trouble, we usually lose!”

Is it just me or does it seem like novelists these days don’t offer–as often at least–such sweeping generalizations of nationalities and ethnic types?

Note: Excerpts from 1996 Dover edition of The Gambler; translation by Constance Garnett.