The specific objects may change but the effect remains the same

In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library. . . . They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

(Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy’s cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.)

The specific objects may change but the effect remains the same. Replace “transistor radio” with “iPhone” or similar. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was first published in English in 1984. I think some version of the clerisy will always exist, and, fortunately, membership is not restricted to the degreed; it is open to anyone who wishes to read and think.

Postmodernisms: What does *that* mean?

In response to What’s so dangerous about Jordan Peterson?, there have been a bunch of discussions about what “postmodernism” means (“He believes that the insistence on the use of gender-neutral pronouns is rooted in postmodernism, which he sees as thinly disguised Marxism.”) By now, postmodernism has become so vague and broad that it means almost anything—which is of course another way of saying “nothing”—so the plural is there in the title for a reason. In my view most people claiming the mantle of big broad labels like “Marxist,” “Christian,” “Socialist,” “Democrat,” etc. are trying to signal something about themselves and their identity much more than they’re trying to understand the nuances of what those positions might mean or what ideas / policies really underlie the labels, so for the most part when I see someone talking or writing about postmodern, I say, “Oh, that’s nice,” then move on to talking about something more interesting and immediate.

But if one is going to attempt to describe postmodernism, and how it relates to Marxism, I’d start by observing that old-school Marxists don’t believe much of the linguistic stuff that postmodernists sometimes say they believe—about how everything reduces to “language” or “discourse”—but I think that the number of people who are “Marxists” in the sense that Marx or Lenin would recognize is tiny, even in academia.

I think what’s actually happening is this: people have an underlying set of models or moral codes and then grab some labels to fit on top of those codes. So the labels fit, or try to fit, the underlying morality and beliefs. People in contemporary academia might be particularly drawn to a version of strident moralism in the form of “postmodernism” or “Marxism” because they don’t have much else—no religion, not much influence, no money, so what’s left? A moral superiority that gets wrapped up in words like “postmodernism.” So postmodernism isn’t so much a thing as a mode or a kind of moral signal, and that in turn is tied into the self-conception of people in academia.

You may be wondering why academia is being dragged into this. Stories about what “postmodernism” means are bound up in academia, where ideas about postmodernism still simmer. In humanities grad school, most grad students make no money, as previously mentioned, and don’t expect to get academic jobs when they’re done. Among those who do graduate, most won’t get jobs. Those who do, probably won’t get tenure. And even those who get tenure will often get it for writing a book that will sell two hundred copies to university libraries and then disappear without a trace. So… why are they doing what they do?

At the same time, humanities grad students and profs don’t even have God to console them, as many religious figures do. So some of the crazier stuff emanating from humanities grad students might be a misplaced need for God or purpose. I’ve never seen the situation discussed in those terms, but as I look at the behavior I saw in grad school and the stories emerging from humanities departments, I think that a central absence better explains many problems than most “logical” explanations. And then “postmodernism” is the label that gets applied to this suite of what amount to beliefs. And that, in turn, is what Jordan Peterson is talking about. If you are (wisely) not following trends in the academic humanities, Peterson’s tweet on the subject probably makes no sense.

Most of us need something to believe it—and the need to believe may be more potent in smarter or more intellectual people. In the absence of God, we very rarely get “nothing.” Instead, we get something else, but we should take care in what that “something” is. The sense of the sacred is still powerful within humanities departments, but what that sacred is has shifted, to their detriment and to the detriment of society as a whole.

(I wrote here about the term “deconstructionism,” which has a set of problems similar to “postmodernism,” so much of what I write there also applies here.)

Evaluating things along power lines, as many postmodernists and Marxists seek to do, isn’t always a bad idea, of course, but there are many other dimensions along which one can evaluate art, social situations, politics, etc. So the relentless focus on “power” becomes tedious and reductive after a while: one always knows what the speaker is likely to say, unless of course the speaker is seen as the powerful person and the thing being criticized can be seen as the obvious (e.g. it seems obvious that many tenured professors are in positions of relatively high power, especially compared to grad students; that’s part of what makes the Lindsay Shepherd story compelling).

This brand of post-modernism tends to infantilize groups or individuals (they’re all victims!) or lead to races to the bottom and the development of victimhood culture. But these pathologies are rarely acknowledged by their defenders.

Has postmodernism led to absurdities like the one at Evergreen State, which led to huge enrollment drops? Maybe. I’ve seen the argument and, on even days, buy it.

I read a good Tweet summarizing the basic problem:

When postmodern types say that truth-claims are rhetoric and that attempts to provide evidence are but moves in a power-game—believe them! They are trying to tell you that this is how they operate in discussions. They are confessing that they cannot imagine doing otherwise.

If everything is just “rhetoric” or “power” or “language,” there is no real way to judge anything. Along a related axis, see “Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem.” Essays like it seem to appear about once a year or so. That they seem to change so little is discouraging.

So what does postmodernism mean? Pretty much whatever you want it to mean, whether you love it for whatever reason or hate it for whatever reason. Which is part of the reason you’ll very rarely see it used on this site: it’s too unspecific to be useful, so I shade towards words with greater utility that haven’t been killed, or at least made somatic, through over-use. There’s a reason why most smart people eschew talking about postmodernism or deconstructionism or similar terms: they’re at a not-very-useful level of abstraction, unless one is primarily trying to signal tribal affiliation, and signaling tribal affiliation isn’t a very interesting level of or for discussion.

If you’ve read to the bottom of this, congratulations! I can’t imagine many people are terribly interested in this subject; it seems that most people read a bit about it, realize that many academics in the humanities are crazy, and go do something more useful. It’s hard to explain this stuff in plain language because it often doesn’t mean much of anything, and explaining why that’s so takes a lot.

Links: Outing club is outing no more, electric buses, housing, and more!

* “Medicare will require hospitals to post prices online.” This is really good and important news.

* “Penn State’s 98-Year-Old Outing Club Is No Longer Allowed to Go Outside,” which is congruent with Jean Twenge’s iGen along with everything you’ve read about absurdity in American colleges. In “What happened to the academic novel?” I posited that academia is now too absurd to be satirized. Johann Hari’s excellent book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions has a chapter devoted to how exposure to nature is critical for human well-being—and now Penn State is apparently banning just that (at least in an organized form).

* “Electric Buses Are Hurting the Oil Industry.” It’s always nice to get unalloyed good news.

* “How Much Is a Word Worth? Declining pay for freelance writers hurts more than just the quality of the prose.” Many people have asked why I don’t freelance for magazines or do similar work in narrative nonfiction. This is why.

* “Promiscuous America: Smart, Secular, and Somewhat Less Happy.” But I don’t buy it: this relies on the General Social Survey. I don’t know if it’s conducted via phone or questionnaire response, but we do know that people lie, a lot, about this subject. See for example “Truth and consequences: using the bogus pipeline to examine sex differences in self-reported sexuality,” though there are many other studies in this vein. I’m also not sure what “happy” really means; some argue that it really means being free from anxiety.

* Democrats’ housing problem.

* Why failing to recycle electronics leaves gold mines untapped.

* “The myth of an ending: why even removing Trump from office won’t save American democracy.”

* “Don’t buy the MacBook Pros even on sale, in my opinion.” I returned a 12″ MacBook because of the absurd size of its trackpad. Otherwise a great machine, but maybe I also avoided keyboard issues. It seems to me that 2015-era Macbook Pros are going to become (or have become) golden-era machines.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay — Elena Ferrante

By now everyone who follows the book-o-sphere has read Ferrante, whose books are very hard to excerpt: there is something weird and hypnotic about the way they roll on, through characters’ lives, in ways that seem banal in the moment by moment but add up to something. They just keep going and though they should be boring they somehow aren’t. Laura Miller says that, “The real heart of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is the economic striving that drives their heroine throughout her life,” which may explain why they are boring when they are boring: at times they are too close to New York Times editorials about supposed income inequality. In the time and place Ferrante writes about economic striving was probably much harder than it is today, and Italy has long been an economic basket case relative to other first-world countries, but one still senses lurking editorializing beneath the story, and it’s hard for me at least to believe that anyone was crazy enough to believe those who identify with communism, which has been definitively shown to fail.

Yet those long sections end and move back into the specific and personal (“it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth”). Elena, the protagonist, is pleased at one point that “I had married a respectable man.” But “respectable” to her transmutes to “predictable” and thus boring: is that the way of most relationships today?* One wonders: every strength has a weakness and the sameness of “respectable” is dull to her and, she feels, dulls her. Respectable is a word that connotes a person’s character in the eyes of an imagined community, rather than the eye and mind of a single individual. To the community respect may be valuable. To Elena it becomes a drag. She needs to re-start the relationship process, which is charted in so many novels (one favorite is On Love).

In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’s world of broken relationships, it is hard to perceive why anyone marries at all. Perhaps they do it because they feel they should. Perhaps they do it for the struggle that is (mostly) lost. Ecstacy plus time means fermentation into misery. Where does one go from here? To the next cycle.

Boredom incites riots and deaths and breakups. It is the characteristic modern feeling, which is why Houellebecq is so popular. He gets boredom like no one else. In the first three books, at least, Elena never understands herself. Critics have praised the depth of Ferrante’s characterization. I perceive the opposite: most of the characters, except perhaps gangster Michele Solara, are all surface and no depths. They don’t perceive themselves. Maybe none of us does. Maybe that is our curse, which is to consciousness’s curse.

The book feels very nineteenth century in its scope, and that’s a good thing. I keep looking for “representative” quotes and finding none. Certain words, like “felt” and “feel,” recur so many times that there are good essays to be written about them, just like the idea of being “respectable” mentioned earlier. The books need a book of entire response to do them justice; even the essays I’ve read pull a single strand and, in doing so, ignore the rest of the world.


As Elena says: “I was unhappy. I lay in bed, discontent with my situation as a mother, a married woman, the whole future debased by the repetition of domestic rituals in the kitchen, in the marriage bed.”

Links: Teen monitoring apps don’t work; education; free speech and thought, and more!

* “Teen Monitoring Apps Don’t Work and Just Make Teens Hate Their Parents, Study;” I doubt this is the last word and haven’t looked at the original study.

* Almost no one knows what education really means.

* “The Myth of ‘Learning Styles.’” I wonder if “concentration” is the real secret. It seems to be, at least anecdotally.

* “Monopsony and Higher Education,” which is just another way to say “don’t go to academic grad school.” But you already know that, of course.

* Subprime mortgages make a comeback. Will anyone who is surprised please raise their hand?

* “The Skeptics Are Wrong Part 2: Speech Culture on Campus is Changing:” for the worse, it would appear.

* “Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem: Dismayed about American politics? Look in the mirror.” Things that seem obvious to me but not, apparently, to others.

* “John Brockman: Pioneer of scientific literature,” and also underrated.

* “Why Did New York City Stop Building Subways?

* “Syria War’s Game Theory Is Too Complex to Predict.” One of the rare good pieces on this subject (that I’ve seen).

* “Linux computer maker System76 to move manufacturing to the U.S.” Very cool news; this is their website. Right now there’s much brouhaha and signaling about “privacy.” You can tell people are serious when they delete Facebook and install Linux.

* “Gay China Rises Up,” a headline I didn’t expect about a subject I know little about.

* “How a Porn Star Became More Credible Than the President.” It’s in Vanity Fair and thus likely SFW.

* “This college professor gives her students extra credit for going on dates.” I laughed and also think that maybe we really do have more or deeper societal / social problems than I’d imagined. Maybe we’re really mis-prioritizing our lives. It’s striking to me, now, how much emphasis upper middle class parents and schools put on intellectual intelligence and how little they put on social and emotional intelligence.

* “VW vows to build massive electric car charging network across US;” good news if it comes to fruition.

“Bean freaks: On the hunt for an elusive legume”

Bean freaks: On the hunt for an elusive legume” is among the more charming and hilarious stories I’ve read recently and it’s highly recommended. There are many interesting moments in it, but this tangent caught my attention:

In his late teens, Sando lost weight and found his crowd, learned to improvise on the piano, and discovered, to his great surprise, that he’d become rather good-looking. “What we call a twink now,” he says. Although he never found a true, long-term partner, he married a friend of a friend in his late thirties and had two boys with her, now nineteen and sixteen. “I’d had every lesbian on the planet ask me for sperm,” he says. “But there was a side of me that said, ‘I can’t do this as a passive bystander.’ ” They raised the boys in adjacent houses for a few years, then divorced. “Theres a sitcom waiting to happen,” he says. But he tells the story flatly, without grievance or irony, as if giving a deposition. “The truth is that your sexual identity is just about the least interesting thing about you,” he says. “Do you play an instrument? That would be interesting.”

I think he’s right about the sitcom, and, while I said something like this in a previous post, I’ll say here that I think we’re going to see a lot more gay, bisexual, non-monogamous, etc. characters in movies, TV, and novels not because of a desire to represent those people, or whatever, though that desire may exist, but because of all the new and interesting plotlines and situations those orientations / interests / proclivities open up. Many writers are at their base pragmatists. They (or we) will use whatever material is available and, ideally, hasn’t been done before. As far as I know, a gay man marrying a lesbian and having two kids together, then raising them side-by-side, hasn’t been done and offers lots of material.

Speaking of laughter, this last sentence got me:

Still, admitting that you’re obsessed with beans is a little like saying you collect decorative plates. It marks your taste as untrustworthy. I’ve seen the reaction often enough in my family: the eye roll and stifled cough, the muttered aside as I show yet another guest the wonders of my well-lit and cleverly organized bean closet. As my daughter Evangeline put it one night, a bit melodramatically, when I served beans for the third time in a week, “Lord, why couldn’t it have been bacon or chocolate?”

If the bean club were still open, I’d subscribe. (This will make sense in the context of the article.)

Skin in the Game – Nassim Taleb

Skin in the Game is congruent with Tom Ricks’ book The Generals. Almost all generals and high-ranking officers in the U.S. military are now exempt from real risk, as Ricks argues—they are exempt even the risk of being fired or reassigned for simple incompetence (or being ill-suited to a role). Almost all enlisted men and junior officers, however, are heavily exposed to real risk, like being killed. That risk asymmetry should give pause to someone contemplating joining. The risk profile for generals prior to the Korean war, while not as a great as the risk profile for regular soldiers, was more reasonable than it is today. Military contractors are arguably the greatest beneficiary of the military today. If more people knew (and acted like they knew) this, we might see changes.

In Skin in the Game Taleb has many, many unusual examples, many of them good; he reads more like an old-fashioned philosopher (that is: one who wants to be read, heard, and understood, as opposed to one who wants tenure), and I mean that as a compliment. One of his rules is, “No person in a transaction should have certainty about the outcomes while the other one has uncertainty.” I wonder how this rule could be applied to colleges, especially under a student-loan system, in which the college is certain to be paid by the student, the student’s family, or the student’s bank (which is really to say, the bank’s student), while the student may see a variable return on investment—especially if the student is ill-equipped in the first place. Colleges may be selling credentials more than skills. But almost no one thinks about those things in advance.

Skin in the Game will, like Antifragile, frustrate you if you demand that every single sentence be true and useful. Some of Taleb’s micro-examples are bad, like his thing against GMOs:

In my war with the Monsanto machine, the advocates of genetically modified organisms (transgenics) kept countering me with benefit analyses (which were often bogus and doctored up), not tail risk analyses for repeated exposures

This view is incoherent because virtually every food eaten today has been “genetically modified,” inefficiently, through selective breeding. If you wish to learn just how hard this is, see The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. Transgenics speed the process. See this sad tale, and the links, for one researcher in the field who is giving up due to widespread opposition. He points out that, over and over again, transgenic have been shown to be safe.

Taleb is right that there are tail risks to transgenics… but that’s also theoretically true of traditional cross-breeding, and it’s also true of not engaging in transgenics. The alternative to high-efficiency transgenics is environmental degradation and, in many places, starvation. That’s pretty bad, and there’s a serious, usually unstated, environmental trade-off between signaling environmental caring and opposite transgenics (nuclear energy is the same).

Despite incorrect micro-examples, Skin in the Game is great and you should read it. It is less uneven than Antifragile. It’s also an excellent book to re-read (don’t expect to get everything the first time through) because Taleb gives so many examples and is overflowing with ideas.

Like: “If your private life conflicts with your intellectual opinion, it cancels your intellectual ideas, not your private life.” Something easily and frequently forgotten, or never considered in the first place. Look at what people do, not what they say. One of the many charming parts of Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy is the apparently wide gap between what many philosophers wrote and how they appeared to live. Maybe the truest philosophers don’t write but do.

Or consider:

the highest form of virtue is unpopular. This does not mean that virtue is inherently unpopular, or correlates with unpopularity, only that unpopular acts signal some risk taking and genuine behavior.

A very Peter Thiel point: he asks what popular view is wrong and what unpopular views a given person holds.

Or consider:

The only definition of rationality that I’ve found that is practically, empirically, and mathematically rigorous is the following: what is rational is that which allows for survival.

This may be true, but most of us in the West now survive, unless we do something truly stupid, dangerous, or brave. So our wealth and comfort may enable us to be irrational, because we’re much less likely to pay the ultimate penalty than we once were. Darwin Awards aside, we mostly make it. We can worry more about terrorism than the much more immediate and likely specter of death in the form of the car, which kills far more people every year in the United States than terrorism.

To his credit, though, Taleb does write:

The Chernoff bound can be explained as follows. The probability that the number of people who drown in their bathtubs in the United States doubles next year [. . .] is one per several trillions lifetimes of the universe. This cannot be said about the doubling of the number of people killed by terrorism over the same period.

He’s right that the number who could be killed by terrorism is massive, especially given the risk of nuclear and biological weapons. But the disproportionate focus on terrorism takes too much attention from risks that seem mundane, like getting into cars. Everyone expects to get into car crashes. Perhaps we should be thinking more seriously about that. Too bad almost no one is.

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