Is most narrative art just a series of status games?

In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt writes:

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our own social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

And those post hoc constructions are often “crafted” subconsciously, without the speaker or listener even aware of what they’re doing. It occurs to me in light of this that most narrative art and the moral reasoning implied in it is just a set of moral status games: someone, usually the narrator, is trying to raise their own status and perhaps that of their group too. Seen in this way a lot of novels, TV shows, and movies get stripped of their explicit content and become vehicles for intuitive status games. Police shows are perhaps the worst offenders but are by no means the only ones. Most romance novels are about raising the heroine’s status through the acquisition of a high-status man.

One could apply similar logic to other genres. While realizing this may make most narrative art more boring, it may also open the possibility of writing narrative art that is explicitly not about status games, or that tries to avoid them to the extent possible. Science fiction may be the genre least prone to relentless status gaming, though “least prone” may also be faint praise.

Life: The writer edition

“Isabella, if you really want to devote yourself to writing, or at least to writing something others will read, you’re going to have to get used to sometimes being ignored, insulted, and despised and to almost always being considered with indifference. It’s an occupational hazard.”

—Daivd Martín in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Angel’s Game

Novelty, art, business

“[T]he most important task in business—the creation of new value—cannot be reduced to a formula and applied by professionals,” as Thiel says in Zero to One, which, if you haven’t read it, you should stop reading this post and go read it instead. Read properly it’s about art as much as business. The most important task in art may also explain why art schools bother us (sample: “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.?“): they take what might be successful master-apprentice relationships and make them professional—that is, more like consultants than like artists. Maybe the best consultants are artists.

There’s more evidence for this: Genre writers often bother literary writers, perhaps because genre writers tend to execute a formula rather than innovate (the word “tend” is key here). If genre writers do come up with a new formula, they tend to iterate on that formula rather than seeking to discover a whole new one; while this might be admired in science and to some extent business it rarely is by artists, who often value noble, large-scale failure over commercial success. It’s easier to scorn what people want than it is to give them what they want, or make what they want.

Many writers of literary fiction are attempting to be novel, though I would argue that most attempts, even those that are highly praised, are actually bad. They may be bad in a way likely to provide tenure for future English professors, but the badness remains, and it isn’t clear that MFA and related programs help inculcate the idea that the most important task is the creation of new value, which by definition can’t be foreseen ahead of time. If someone foresaw it, they would execute, and the value would be there. Unpredictability may also be why so many artistic careers are difficult: you don’t know if you’re really creating value until it’s too late. Efforts at standardization are futile. Value may not even be recognized in your lifetime. You really are Sisyphus. When I first read the core part of The Myth of Sisphyus, in high school, I thought it stupid, yet it remains with me because it touches something at the core of not just art but life.

As Jonah Lehrer wrote, “although we are always surrounded by our creations, there is something profoundly mysterious about the creative process.” That mystery exists across fields.

Why bother observing inconsistencies?

A friend noticed that I tend to say things like this: “The number of people who are genuinely interested in this kind of social policy minutia is probably small, as the popular support for programs like UPK shows” and he asked: why bother if no one cares?

In some existential sense one could ask why anyone bothers doing anything. More specific to this case, I write to find out what I think—I’m not alone in this—and writing solely for yourself has a pointless, masturbatory quality. I also write the kinds of things I like to read, and to understand the world better. Not everyone is interested in that but I am and presumably many readers of this blog are.

Most ideas also have histories, and most beliefs about subjects outside of science don’t advance linearly.* They’re subject to fashion. So one way to determine current fault lines in social (and legal) thinking is to look at what other people in other places and other times have thought.

Take this example: In Sexual Personae Camille Paglia says that the Marquis de Sade’s work “demonstrates the relativism of sexual and criminal codes.” His major works were done more than 200 years ago. Is it not strange that the same points are made, over and over again, through the generations? One reading of this could be that posts like mine are useless: little changes, despite writers like me. Another could be that the optimist hopes tomorrow will be better, for some value of better, than today despite evidence to the contrary.

In Western society criminal codes are designed above all to regulate three things: violence, sex, and property. The relations among the three could be said to be the primary driver of life and hence literature. One could derive a general principle from lots of specific examples.

Virtually everything “big” starts small. This is true of startups, other businesses, novels, countries, and life itself (via evolution). In general it’s better to start with the specific and move towards the general. The more specific the better in most cases. While it is true that most people don’t especially care about hypocrisy, some do, and observing how a society or individual responds to hypocrisy or is hypocritical can be tremendously revealing. Some people don’t care about revelation, and that’s okay. My reasons for writing this blog and thinking about and observing things are similar to the ones Paul Graham enumerates:

I do it, first of all, for the same reason I did look under rocks as a kid: plain curiosity. And I’m especially curious about anything that’s forbidden. Let me see and decide for myself.

Second, I do it because I don’t like the idea of being mistaken. If, like other eras, we believe things that will later seem ridiculous, I want to know what they are so that I, at least, can avoid believing them.

Third, I do it because it’s good for the brain. To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to.

I tend not to get in too much “trouble” because I’m not well known enough to generate intense scrutiny or hate mail or misreadings. People misreading Graham are legion and frequently, unintentionally, hilarious. I don’t have nearly as many, but I still like to think I’m making a difference, however small, at the margins.


* This could be an argument for being in fields that unambiguously advance: at least you know when you’re right, as opposed to being merely morally fashionable.

The ignorance and ideological blindness in the college sex articles: Kathleen Bogle and Megan McArdle

A spate of mostly dumb articles, like this one by Kathleen Bogle: “The Missing Key to Fighting Sexual Assault on Campus,” have been wending their way through the blagosphere; most argue or seem to argue that universities need to act much more like police.* Bogle writes, for example, that “The key is [for colleges?] to make clear exactly when it is a crime to have sex with a person who is too intoxicated to be capable of giving meaningful consent.” But Bogle also writes, in a more pragmatic vein:

most cases of drunken sex will be—and, probably, should be—beyond the reach of the law. Young women need to know this. They need to know that the law treats sex after drinking as assault only in extreme circumstances.

(Emphasis added.)

Bogle, like most writers on this topic, ignores an obvious contradiction between current criminal law and what changes these writers want to see universities do: drunkenness is not a defense against any criminal act. No matter how drunk you get, if you kill someone you will be eligible to be charged with manslaughter or murder. If you can legally be said to have the mental state necessary to be accountable for the ultimate, irreversible crime, you presumably legally have the mental state necessary to accountable to consent to sex.

Few writers mention this.** More writers—though still too few—point out other questions: what if both parties are blotto drunk? Do they then legally rape each other? Do both get charged? Will they be in the real world? When discussing matters in the abstract these issues might seem like unimportant edge cases but moving from idea to implementation will make them very serious.

There aren’t good, intellectually coherent administrative solutions. Megan McArdle is right: “Rape on Campus Belongs in the Courts.” Courts have centuries of practice in attempting to balance the need for justice with rights for fair trials. If a serious crime has been committed, university administrators are the wrong place to go: they’re supposed to handle academic and administrative matters, not horrific crimes—for which they don’t have the infrastructure or legal authority. If universities do set up kangaroo courts, one will wrongly sanction someone and that someone will sue the university and wins in real court with real rules. Criminal and civil rules are fucked up in various ways, but they are at least reasonably consistent and reasonably public.

Moreover, Bogle and others like her forget their own ideological preconceptions. I would like to make some of mine explicit, as they are stated by Camille Paglia in the first pages of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson:

Sexuality and eroticism are the intricate intersection of nature and culture. Feminists grossly oversimplify the problem of sex when they reduce it to a matter of social convention: readjust society, eliminate sexual inequality, purify sex roles, and happiness and harmony will reign. Here feminists, like all liberal movements of the past two hundred years, is heir to Rousseau. [. . .]

This book takes the point of view of Sade, the most unread major writer in Western literature. [. . .] For Sade, getting back to nature (the Romantic imperative that still permeates our nature culture from sex counseling to cereal commercials) would be to give free reign to violence and lust. I agree. Society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check.

Drinking weakens the power of social force, the social contract, and the super-ego—which is why people do it. The dangers are real and well-known. Yet we don’t want to acknowledge the darkness. Slate writer Emily Yoffe emphasized those dangers in 2013, and the current bout of jabber isn’t really moving past that. We as a society should be pointing out the perils of too much drinking. We also shouldn’t kid ourselves about why we like to drink: to turn off our super-egos. To live in the moment instead of the future. To take the risks and do the things we’d like to do sober. We try to banish the knowledge of darkness that lurks in the soul, only to see that darkness reflected and reëmerge in novels, movies, TV, music. Paglia is the rare critic who will name and describe the darkness. For that she is castigated.

The other underlying reality is that women are less inclined to want to have sex with a large number of random strangers than men, for reasons grounded in evolutionary biology. This is not a problem that affects both sexes equally, despite the gender-blind way that modern laws are supposed to be written. Relatively few men appear to be sexually assaulted by drunk women. But a lot of the essay-writing set either knows nothing about evolutionary biology or doesn’t want to acknowledge it, so some of the real mechanisms underlying these articles remain buried, until annoying gadflies like me bring them up.

EDIT 2016: For some historical context, which is largely missing from the discussions that have flared up in the media, see “A Sex Scandal from 1960s Yale Is a Window Into a World With No Internet.” The Internet has made many things better, but certainly not all of them, and it seems to empower some of campus’s loudest, angriest neurotics.


* I wrote about another instance in “If you want to understand frats, talk to the women who party at them (paging Caitlin Flanagan).”

** Hypocrisy in the law, however, is not an impediment to instituting it anyway. In Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, Judith Levine writes: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” Teenagers—usually black males—are adults when they commit crimes and “children”—usually white teenagers—when they have sex. This demonstrates more about culture and economics than anything inherent about people in the age range 13 – 17.

Laurie Schaffner makes a similar observation in an essay collection about regulating sexuality, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Links: Happiness Advice, Writing Tips, Nymphomaniac, Legal Drugs, “Rape Culture” Hysteria, and more

* “The dream-crushing grind of the academic job market;” I really ought to stop reading (and posting) articles like this but the same almost subconscious impulse that draws the eye to car crashes and nude photos draws mine to them.

* “Advice for a Happy Life by Charles Murray: Consider marrying young. Be wary of grand passions. Watch ‘Groundhog Day’ (again). Advice on how to live to the fullest,” most of which may apply most to the author than to everyone.

* “101 Practical Writing Tips From Hollywood Screenwriter Brian Koppelman.”

* “Lars’s Real Girl: Charlotte Gainsbourg on Nymphomaniac and Working With von Trier.” Unfortunately, the movie adds up to very little.

* My Amazon review of Madison Young’s surprisingly dull book, “Daddy: A Memoir.”

* “The Drugging of the American Boy: By the time they reach high school, nearly 20 percent of all American boys will be diagnosed with ADHD.” Most diagnoses are probably wrong.

* “The Value Of An Engineering Degree.”

* Someone found this blog by searching for “swear word count in book asking anna by jake seliger.” I can’t imagine why anyone would want to know this. Someone else found this blog by searching for “gandalf sex,” which may make even less sense.

* Crowd funding is market research.

* “It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria.”

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