Life: The life of the artist edition

I lived for a considerable time with an older, extremely talented actress. She scorned my cleanliness theory and maintained that theatre is shit, lust, rage and wickedness. ‘The only boring thing about you, Ingmar Bergman,’ she said, ‘is your passion for the wholesome. You should abandon that passion. It’s false and suspect. It sets limits you daren’t exceed. Like Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, you should seek out your syphilitic whore.

Perhaps she was right, perhaps it was all romantic drivel in the wash of pop art and shady drug scenes. I don’t know. All I know is that this beautiful and brilliant actress lost her memory and her teeth and died at fifty in a mental hospital. That’s what she got for expressing her feelings. (35)

—Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, which should be bad but isn’t. Consider it recommended. I think like the actress yet live closer to Bergman.

How many actresses have lived like the actress but not got what she got “for expressing her feelings?” Be reluctant to generalize from anecdote!

From 2015 many things stand out, among them corporal punishment, the prevalence of disease, the need to make music when it cannot be effectively recorded and played back at will, and relentless reading in a land without TV.

Links: Child support and debtors’ prison, broken colleges, the meaning of life, and more

* “Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat.” To call this system “insane” is an understatement. Even calling it a “system” might be overly kind.

* “Thinking too highly of higher ed;” if you read nothing else this month read this.

* Jeff offers perspective on the mattress industry and writers more generally.

* “Thinking too highly of higher ed,” by Peter Thiel, who also wrote Zero to One (which you, like everyone, should read).

* “The global secular savings stagnation glut,” the sort of link I rarely post here and yet:

What this discussion should make clear is that secular stagnation isn’t much of a puzzle. Rather, it is a dilemma. The ageing societies of the rich world want rapid income growth and low inflation and a decent return on safe investments and limited redistribution and low levels of immigration. Well you can’t have all of that. And what they have decided is that what they’re prepared to sacrifice is the rapid income growth. In aggregate that decision looks somewhat reasonable if not entirely right. But it is a choice with pretty significant distributional consequences. And the second era of secular stagnation will come to an end when political and demographic shifts allow the losers from this arrangement to say: enough.

* “If We Dig Out All Our Fossil Fuels, Here’s How Hot We Can Expect It to Get.”

* “Walter Scott, child support defendant murdered by cop, earned about $800/month.”

* “Nutritional Science Isn’t Very Scientific: The research behind dietary recommendations is a lot less certain than you think.” Just about the only obvious thing is “Don’t eat refined carbohydrates,” like sugar and white rice, and eat vegetables and nuts.

* “What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?

* The Steady Rise of Bike Ridership in New York

* “Is Capitalism Making Us Stupid?“, a brilliant article with a stupid title.

Jerry Seinfeld intends to die standing up, searching for another breakthrough

Someone sent me “Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up” and I see why. The article is a gem of its kind, but the really good parts are all about process, and so many good people’s processes are similar, and time-intensive: “Developing jokes as glacially as he does, Seinfeld says, allows for breakthroughs he wouldn’t reach otherwise.” That’s also a point of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Perhaps not surprisingly Seinfeld cites the Japanese as an influence:

Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”

The writer, Jonah Weiner, also makes the article a pleasure when he writes, “There is a contemporary vogue for turning over an entire act rapidly: tossing out jokes wholesale, starting again from zero to avoid creative stasis. Louis C.K. has made this practice nearly synonymous with black-belt stand-up.” “Black-belt stand-up:” was he consciously referencing himself referencing Seinfeld’s Japanese cricket cages, since black belts are associated with Asian martial arts? I don’t know. I do know based on the article that Seinfeld works for his breakthroughs, as I suppose everyone who does anything significant does.

One senses he’d get along with or hate Jonathan Ive. Love and hate are closer to each other than they are to indifference.

The best writers have a sense of monomania, often disguised as proportion, in them, and written sentences invite the editing and reworking Seinfeld gives to jokes.

This detail is merely true: “A sleek Pinarello racing bicycle, which Seinfeld rides around town, stood against a wall. ‘It’s very addictive, that feeling of gliding through the city,’ he said.” I don’t have a “Pinarello racing bicycle,” and according to Google’s fetching of the bike’s price I probably won’t, ever, but something about biking catches my attention, especially in New York, which may be becoming the world’s best place for riding. I do have a bike that feels right, though, and the addictiveness is real. Five miles in Manhattan feels like more progress than 200 in Arizona. The why still evades me, as the “why?” of humor evades us all while still seeming essential to intelligence.

The gym, otherwise known as The Temple of Iron:

[I]f we compare the practices of organized religion and the gym, we can identify many similarities: the faithful of both church and gym travel to a separate building, wear special clothes, eat special food and take part in shared rituals that are performed with complete absorption and dedication. For those for whom religion is no longer a marker of identity, and who do not take part in the social aspects of religious observance, going to the gym fulfils many of the same individual and social needs. The major difference is, of course, that churchgoers polish their eternal souls with a view to attaining happiness everlasting, while gym-goers train their bodies for rewards in the here and now.

That’s from The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym, which so far oscillates between thoughtful (as in the quoted paragraph) and exceedingly annoying (“The body, how it is interpreted, represented, used, shaped, and presented in private and public, plays a central role in the transformation of abstract social discourses into lived actions and identities”—which could say, “People interpret other people based on their bodies,” but why use eight words when eighty are available?). Always be wary of writers who use the word “discourse,” because it’s so often a marker of bogosity, and a sign that the writer should read Paglia’s “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.”

under_armourI go to the gym or run most days, and I have a fascination with articles about the saints of apparel industry—like “Skin in the Game: Under Armour knows athletes. Can it sell to everyone else?” (notice the eroticized accompanying photo, shot by someone who knows his business) or “Chip Wilson, Lululemon Guru, Is Moving On.” One does not have to be a writer for Mad Men to see that these companies are trying, perhaps successfully, to tap into mythic associations and aspirations; both articles could fit into Virginia Postrel’s book The Power of Glamour. Glamour is sometimes its own reward.

The gym, at least the one I go to, is more multiethnic than most of my friend circles or the parties I go to. The net of people caught by the squat cage is wider. There are also interesting gender divisions: men do more free weights and women do more cardio (though they’d probably be better served by free weights). Modesty in the gym is however not a virtue, and in most gyms I’ve seen a lot of eye-fucking goes on, for perhaps obvious reasons. If people once met and mated through religious organizations and now do while pressing, one could add this example to Chaline’s book.



Apply this also to academics, writers, and artists:

Many years ago, my wife and I were on vacation on Vancouver Island, looking for a place to stay. We found an attractive but deserted motel on a little-traveled road in the middle of a forest. The owners were a charming young couple who needed little prompting to tell us their story. They had been schoolteachers in the province of Alberta; they had decided to change their life and used their life savings to buy this motel, which had been built a dozen years earlier. They told us without irony or self-consciousness that they had been able to buy it cheap, ‘because six or seven previous owners had failed to make a go of it.’ They also told us about plans to seek a loan to make the establishment more attractive by building a restaurant next to it. They felt no need to explain why they expected to succeed where six or seven others had failed. A common thread of boldness and optimism links businesspeople, from motel owners to superstar CEOs. (258–9)

That’s from Daniel Kahneman’s highly recommended book Thinking, Fast and Slow. How many times have you read some artists say that they succeeded because they believed totally in themselves and worked demonically to make their careers happen? If you’re like me you’ve heard this narrative many times. But you haven’t mostly heard the narrative about artists who believed totally in themselves and worked demonically only to fail, because they don’t get interviewed and their views don’t hit the media.

The quote is from chapter  24 of Thinking, Fast and Slow, which ought to be required reading for anyone thinking about getting a grad degree in the humanities. People giving advice on this topic tend to have succeeded; those who haven’t succeeded are mute (though less mute than they once were).

Links: Mattresses, kids, keyboards, bikes, perfection, and Broki (and a plea)

* “Slumber Party! Casper leads a new crowd of startups in the $14 billion mattress industry, trying to turn the most utilitarian of purchases into a quirky, shareable adventure. Wake up to the new world of selling the fundane.” Of these companies Tuft & Needle may be my favorite. This is a very sad sentence, though perhaps it isn’t intended as such: “David Perry, an editor at Furniture Today … has covered the mattress industry for 20 years.” Has Perry waited decades for his moment in the startup sun?

* A new study says it doesn’t matter how much time you spend with your kids. Anxious and neurotic upper-middle-class parents, consider yourself relieved. I don’t (particularly) recall wanting to wanting extensively to interact with my parents when I was a kid, though maybe my memory is flawed.

* Rashid Nassar on Unicomp’s amazing customer service.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* “Poor land use in the world’s greatest cities carries a huge cost“—in financial, equality, and other terms.

* “Why I keep fixing my bike,” which is shockingly beautiful and about more than just the bike.

* “The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym, by Eric Chaline.” I ordered a copy:

Eric Chaline, author of this history, suggests that, in the modern world, the gym functions as a “quasi-religious space” where devotees gather together to “wear special clothes, eat special food and take part in shared rituals that are performed with complete absorption and dedication”. For the ancient Greeks, the gymnasium was an important institution (the word derives from gymnazein, ‘to exercise naked’, and they did).

though I am apprehensive: “His analysis of the theme, and of sexuality in general, relies heavily on Michel Foucault.” That is never a sign of a good writer or thinker. I wonder if Chaline has seen Reddit’s Swole Acceptance page, which is amazingly hilarious.

* Book news is weak this week; what am I missing? The new Ishiguro is okay but in my view there are others doing similar things better. I just finished The Possibility of an Island and can’t decide if it warrants an individual post. Emma Sayle’s book Behind the Mask: Enter a World Where Women Make – and Break – the Rules is straight up pornography-memoir (the writing is better than average but still worse than good novels; Never the Face is a good comparison) and I don’t want to write about it in more detail until it’s more easily available in the U.S. What is beautiful but plotful that I need to read? I’m tempted, as often happens, to re-read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

Why do people, including other “humanists,” love to hate the humanities?

In “The Hierarchy of Humanities Schadenfreude: Scoffing at academic job-market losers comes from some unexpected places” Rebecca Schuman posits some of the reasons why other academics look down on humanities professors, and why humanities professors look down on the adjuncts. I have some theories of my own:

* The simple answer is stated in Schuman’s second paragraph: “Allow me to explain supply and demand to you.” Teaching 18 – 22-year-old undergrads is just not that hard and a lot of people can do it. Grad school in the humanities is more time-consuming than hard. There is in fact a lot of supply and limited demand. The simple answers are often correct.

* Regarding tenured professors looking down on adjuncts, academia is not solely a lottery (though it has some lottery-like elements); people who write in a disciplined, perhaps even demonic, way tend to succeed, at least for some value of “success.” Tenure-track gigs in rural Wisconsin or Florida are much easier to be had than TT gigs in New York and Chicago.

* Academia is ridiculously hierarchical and status-oriented, even if its status ladder is different than the mainstream American status ladder. It’s also, interestingly, very transparent. People at the very top of any ladder rarely have a need to piss on those lower than themselves, but the nervous middle classes often piss downwards to make themselves feel better. Humanities professors are convinced they got where they are because of their hard work and adjuncts got where they are because of their lack of it, yet humanities professors rarely if ever apply the same thinking to income or to non-academic status.

* The unspoken fear underneath much of the status jockeying entails realizing that, even among the employed, much of the “research” being done either doesn’t matter or is just wrong.

That last one is important. To some extent humanists are destroying themselves and have been for decades. They’ve lost whatever ability they had to ask themselves, “Is this important?” and “Why should other people give a shit about it?” I don’t think I ever heard those discussions among academics, and I rarely if ever read them among the marginalized scribblers online. If you want to know whether going to grad school in the humanities is a good idea, start by reading the journals or books. Many are filled with garbage and the ongoing fascination with 19th and early 20th century economists and psychologists is bizarre. Humanists rarely even cite each other. The simplest way to learn about these problems is just to read the output.

People are talked out of their creative, interesting, and original ideas. People with those kinds of ideas get MFAs, or blog, or leave. The field has no space for such ideas, per Peter Thiel. At one point academia was growing fast enough that even humanities disciplines had space for heterodox thinkers, but since ~1975 that hasn’t been true.

The lessons of academic satires and Camille Paglia have been largely ignored. The cost to the individual who manages to get tenure is low but the cost to the field as a whole is high.

Within the field no one can say this and outside the field everyone is ignored. The equilibrium is not a good one.

Laptops, students, distraction: hardly a surprise

I originally wrote this in 2008 but just updated it.

The Story's Story

This post grew out of a comment responding to the question, “What Restrictions Should Student Laptops Have?” It’s of interest to me because I’m a graduate student who teaches English 101/102 and takes classes at the University of Arizona. In addition, this post dovetails nicely with “Desktops versus laptops.”

I hadn’t realized that the questioner in the original Slashdot post referred to high school students who would keep the computers.

The short version: leave restrictions or lack thereof to the teachers or instructors.

For background, read Why I ban laptops in my classroom, I Don’t Multitask, professor vs laptop and then Paul Graham’s Disconnecting Distraction followed by Is Google Making Us Stupid? in The Atlantic. If Paul Graham finds the Internet ceaselessly distracting, what hope do freshmen have? I hear from friends that they feel like they can’t go more than a half hour…

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