Take meaning where you find it: HBO’s Girls versus life in startups

My Instapaper queue had its usual dozen or so articles in it, and I noticed a trend or attitude that roughly divided them in two and offered useful juxtapositions on contemporary life: the first bunch involved the HBO show Girls (see here, here, here, and here) and the next ones involve startups (sample: “Inside Instagram: How Slowing Its Roll Put the Little Startup in the Fast Lane, Roberto Caro, and cancer (“Why haven’t we cured cancer yet? (Revisited): Personalized medicine versus evolution). The former articles say things like: “For a certain kind of lucky person, freed of the most immediate financial burdens and rich in a family’s emotional investment, college might have felt like independence or responsibility. But it turns out to be so cosseted and circumscribed that graduating feels a little like leaving the womb.” The latter describe how mind-boggling complex biology really is and say things like, “If [Instagram] can just keep doing what it’s been doing, but bigger, faster, better. If it can do all that, it just may get there. Either way, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

The Girls articles are mostly about how the characters lack direction or meaning. The latter are about the extraordinary opportunities that exist for doing new, interesting things in the world, especially if you can find a topic beyond yourself that you find fascinating. The Girls articles (not necessarily the show itself, which I haven’t seen much of) are what happens when you don’t do anything real. You don’t have real problems. Your identity is all about consumption and beliefs instead of production, knowledge, and being able to do things other people can’t. Ennui and anomie threaten to overwhelm. The primal needs of food and shelter are unlikely to become life-threatening.

Instagram, Robert Caro, and cancer research show, by contrast, what happens when do things that are real. Nothing stops the characters in Girls from writing software that people want to use, writing magisterial tomes that plumb the depths of the human experience, or trying to figure out how fundamental biology works. Nothing, that is, except themselves. The world is vast, human desires appear to be infinite, or nearly infinite, and the world’s problems are by no means solved. The girls on Girls should try solving them. And the writers who discuss Girls should be thinking about these kinds of fundamental issues of meaning that one can see peppered across American life.

The commentary around Girls shows a certain kind of problem in American, and general affluent Western, life. It’s still a problem that the writers of these articles aren’t really acknowledging, and it’s a problem that Instagram, Robert Caro, and cancer research shows us how to solve—if we want to listen.

Take meaning where you find it: HBO's Girls versus life in startups

My Instapaper queue had its usual dozen or so articles in it, and I noticed a trend or attitude that roughly divided them in two and offered useful juxtapositions on contemporary life: the first bunch involved the HBO show Girls (see here, here, here, and here for examples) and the next ones involve startups (sample: “Inside Instagram: How Slowing Its Roll Put the Little Startup in the Fast Lane, Roberto Caro, and cancer (“Why haven’t we cured cancer yet? (Revisited): Personalized medicine versus evolution). The former articles say things like: “For a certain kind of lucky person, freed of the most immediate financial burdens and rich in a family’s emotional investment, college might have felt like independence or responsibility. But it turns out to be so cosseted and circumscribed that graduating feels a little like leaving the womb.” The latter describe how mind-boggling complex biology really is and say things like, “If [Instagram] can just keep doing what it’s been doing, but bigger, faster, better. If it can do all that, it just may get there. Either way, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

The former group are mostly about how the characters portrayed in the show lack direction and meaning. The latter are about the extraordinary opportunities that exist for doing new, interesting things in the world, especially if you can find a topic beyond yourself that you find fascinating. The Girls articles (not necessarily the show itself, which I haven’t seen) are what happens when you don’t do anything real. You don’t have real problems. Your identity is all about consumption and beliefs instead of production, knowledge, and being able to do things other people can’t. Ennui and anomie threaten to overwhelm. The primal needs of food and shelter are unlikely to become life-threatening.

Instagram, Robert Caro, and cancer research show, by contrast, what happens when do things that are real. Nothing stops the characters in Girls from writing software that people want to use, writing magisterial tomes that plumb the depths of the human experience, or trying to figure out how fundamental biology works. Nothing, that is, except themselves. The world is vast, human desires appear to be infinite, or nearly infinite, and the world’s problems are by no means solved. The girls on Girls should try solving them. And the writers who discuss Girls should be thinking about these kinds of fundamental issues of meaning that one can see peppered across American life.

Anyway: I want to emphasize that I haven’t seen Girls, and it might be very good. But the commentary around the show shows a certain kind of problem in American, and, more generally, affluent Western, life in general. It’s still a problem that the writers of these articles aren’t really acknowledging, and it’s a problem that Instagram, Robert Caro, and cancer research shows us how to solve—if we want to listen.

Links: The dubious value of humanities graduate degrees, Hemlock Grove and vampires, Hunter Moore and isanyoneup.com, poetry’s playfulness, and more

* When to leave grad school off your resume. In my limited experience reading resumes, having a PhD is a minus; an M.A. is useless, and being in grad school makes me think less of its value, not more.

* “The Forgotten Student: Has Higher Education Stiffed Its Most Important Client?: How the prestige game costs students more money for a lower-quality education.” To me, this is utterly obvious.

* The novel Hemlock Grove sounds like fun: “‘Its howls all the while more plaintive and lupine as a snout emerged through its lips and worked open and shut, its old face bunched around it in an obsolete mask. It rolled onto all fours and rose shaking violently, spraying blood in a mist and divesting himself of the remnants of man coat in a hot mess.’ It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write like this, to use an almost Faulknerian descriptive palette in service of a monster story.”

* Is the Future of English Bad Science?

* “Hunter Moore Makes a Living Screwing You;” I had never heard of isanyoneup.com before and won’t link directly, but as I read the story I kept thinking, “This is why it’s hard to write relevant contemporary fiction. . .” This, and Reddit’s user-submitted adult site, which you can find easily enough if you want to.

* A short, accurate description of the long-term problems in Europe. This is also, on some level, about how people form groups and act in those groups. (“Americans in Massachusetts and Americans in Mississippi do feel themselves part of the same country, sharing language and culture. Germans and Spaniards do not feel the same.”) See further Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.

* “Most men won’t be allowed to admit this, but the new HBO show [Girls] is a disastrous celebration of entitlement and helplessness.”

* Why poetry should be more playful, which seems completely obvious to me; Billy Collins is one of my favorite poets precisely because he’s so playful, so much the opposite of the poetry read in school. From the post itself: “The growing distance between serious verse and children’s verse has certainly been connected—as cause, effect, or more likely both—to the increasing irrelevance of serious poetry.”

* Why you should read Before the Lights Go Out.

Links: The dubious value of humanities graduate degrees, Hemlock Grove and vampires, Hunter Moore and isanyoneup.com, poetry's playfulness, and more

* When to leave grad school off your resume. In my limited experience reading resumes, having a PhD is a minus; an M.A. is useless, and being in grad school makes me think less of its value, not more.

* “The Forgotten Student: Has Higher Education Stiffed Its Most Important Client?: How the prestige game costs students more money for a lower-quality education.” To me, this is utterly obvious.

* The novel Hemlock Grove sounds like fun: “‘Its howls all the while more plaintive and lupine as a snout emerged through its lips and worked open and shut, its old face bunched around it in an obsolete mask. It rolled onto all fours and rose shaking violently, spraying blood in a mist and divesting himself of the remnants of man coat in a hot mess.’ It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write like this, to use an almost Faulknerian descriptive palette in service of a monster story.”

* Is the Future of English Bad Science?

* “Hunter Moore Makes a Living Screwing You;” I had never heard of isanyoneup.com before and won’t link directly, but as I read the story I kept thinking, “This is why it’s hard to write relevant contemporary fiction. . .” This, and Reddit’s user-submitted adult site, which you can find easily enough if you want to.

* A short, accurate description of the long-term problems in Europe. This is also, on some level, about how people form groups and act in those groups. (“Americans in Massachusetts and Americans in Mississippi do feel themselves part of the same country, sharing language and culture. Germans and Spaniards do not feel the same.”) See further Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.

* “Most men won’t be allowed to admit this, but the new HBO show [Girls] is a disastrous celebration of entitlement and helplessness.”

* Why poetry should be more playful, which seems completely obvious to me; Billy Collins is one of my favorite poets precisely because he’s so playful, so much the opposite of the poetry read in school. From the post itself: “The growing distance between serious verse and children’s verse has certainly been connected—as cause, effect, or more likely both—to the increasing irrelevance of serious poetry.”

* Why you should read Before the Lights Go Out.

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