“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, March 19, 2016

My theory, which is mine, which I have, cough cough

Ever since I was knee high to a mockingbird, I’ve been reading about the lamentable state of American innumeracy. Seems like we Americans, unlike Koreans, Finns, and Albanians, just can’t find our way in even the lower mathematics. Many theories have been advanced. Many studies, at great expense, have been launched.
Well, I was sitting out at the playground today, watching Adam and other kids and parents, and it struck me that it might have something to do with the way us parents threaten.  More specifically, the way we say: I’m going to count to five and you better get in your seat, eat your dinner, get off the jungle gym, etc.
Nobody ever says, I’m going to go to “e”.
It is perhaps for this reason that the alphabet really does seem composed of friendly little mountaineers, each with its little hammer, all of them climbing up one after the other the cliff face of language. Whereas numbers always have the whiff of the disciplinarian, as if they all waved rulers at us threateningly.
To prove my theory, I’d only need a couple of million dollars from Zuckerberg or Gates or one of the other billionaires. I would raise three groups of kids, one threatened, traditionally, with numeration, one with the alphabet (I’m going to go to e, and you better be over here: a b c d e) and one raised with varied threats (I’m going to go to mo and you better get over here  -eenie meenie minee mo; or, I’m going to go to paper and you better get off that jungle gym – rock scissors paper). Then we’d overload these children with various repeititive and intrusive tests and find out whether the alphabet menaced read at a lower level than the number menaced, and so on.

I’m getting on the phone to the Ford foundation tomorrow.

Friday, March 18, 2016

It's all your fault! (and Trump is still funny)


Some genius at the AEC, which successfully suppressed its studies of the toxic effects of the radiation produced by above ground nuclear bomb tests (thus giving the lie to those conspiracy theory debunkers who claim that it can’t happen here – yes, Virginia, if you have the judicial power to seal as top secret any papers you feel like, you can mount a conspiracy at the highest levels), wrote a memo in the fifties in which, after considering the bummer of fallout, concluded hopefully that at least it was falling on the “low use segment of the population.” This phrase gives us a sort of x ray of the mindset of our betters – the governing class that extends from the plutocrats to the politicos and the high profile journalists and pundits. The low use segment of the population is regularly hauled out for public beatings whenever the governing class feels threatened, or at low ebb, or needs some sportive relief.
Yet of course all is not bleak for the low user – or loser – crowd. Since, as Jesus H. Christ said, we have them with us always, we can always make use of them by stirring up a little racism here, a little panic over welfare there. While they are riled up, you can clip entitlements, lower taxes on the top rates, and sign your fabuloso trade agreements. This process is of course a bit of hush hush – obfuscation on these things is provided free by the media, so the losers don’t get too nosey.
Sometimes, however, as in this election year, out comes the ugly.
Ugly is spelled Trump this season. There’s been a seachange in the thumbsucker community, and it has been decreed that Trump is no longer funny. My ass – Trump is still funny. Of course, all the GOP candidates were funny. Maybe not Cruz, except in that Hannibal Lector way. The thing about Trump is that, like Falstaff, he is not only funny in himself, but he brings out the funny in others.
Case in point is the latest meme among the thumbsuckers: why don’t the losers move more?
This got started with an article published by someone on the masthead of the National Review. NR has been exasperated by Trump, and finally, to much thunder, excommunicated him. It was powerful stuff, but alas, the next day the editorial staff awakened and found out that they hadn’t been elected pope. Quite the shock. They were, as Trump has show every day, mere pipsqueaks in bowties. In fact, of course, the National Review has long cultivated pipsqueak conservatism, but they also peddle a good line in homoerotic worship of tough, “masculine” leaders. Oh how they love those leaders! From Ronald Reagan to Dick Cheney, their bowties have always stood a little stiffer when saluting minor act of mass murder committed in the name of America.
So it stands in the kingdom of Rightwingia. Since the excommunication didn’t work, the next thing, of course, is to empty the vials on the low use segment – which, as they distantly perceive from the newspapers, is where the unfortunate Trumpmania is located. The lecture, given with the appropriate amount of smirking, is that these fat assed white bluecollar types would do better to rent a U Haul and move, rather than disturbing their betters. Vote for what we tell you to vote for, and get a better job! One imagines the high fives. The bowties were showing their legendary toughness once again!
Of course, what happens on the right quickly migrates to the “left”, in as much as Vox, or Mother Jones, pretends to a liberal sensibility. Of course, the smirks were taken out – this is the great White Euphemism Zone, after all – and the question was asked like some Zen puzzle with a gotcha at the end: why aren’t these low enders moving around like obedient fleas in the flea circus as we stage our wonderful globalization act? Is it some dreadful character flaw – oh surely it is – that keeps the blue collar work force from, well, renting a U Haul!
I mean, we aren’t going to reverse history. Put in the appropriate chuckles here. Haven’t the low use people realized? And truly, if you went to Harvard or any of the real institutions of higher education, if your daddy or mommy had risen above the low enders, well, globalisation has been good for you. The maids are cheaper, the flights to Bangkok exquisite, and your real estate deals get mentioned in the Washingtonian, as well as your start up parties. Etc.
Being neo-liberals, however, these thumbsuckers took the problem of residential mobility as something serious that the application of homo economicus could solve. Moving for them comes down to a transaction cost. Sure there are these costs, but generally, surely, the blue collar factory worker just needs more human capital and a move to, say, Manhattan to become a hedge funder. So surely it is some irrational fetish, like attachment to guns, preventing the intersubstitution in the human capital market to move along as efficiently as always.
Being official explainers doesn’t mean anything so vulgar as research for the thumbsucker, however. Myself, I, like millions of people, have access to JSTOR and EBSCO and can actually look up what sociologists have said about residential mobility, cause and effects. Admittedly, this isn’t as fun as sitting in your chair and imagining some lazy rational choice scenario, but there you are: even cherries have their pits.
Sociologists have long connected some dots. For instance, between residential mobility and divorce. Divorce is both a large driver of residential mobility. It was noted by Larry Long in 1974 that married men over thirty were more residentially stable, and this was often accompanied by the married woman joining the work force outside the house. Long, building on this, claimed that divorce was a driver of residential mobility – work that has been amply confirmed – and that it was also possible that divorce occurred more often among one income families that became two income families, thus showing what I dare say is a dialectical effect, which we will all blush about (dialectic is for Commies!). As for the effectss on the children of the residentially migrant, we also have plenty of sociological literature if we are energetic enough to type some letters into our computer. What has been found is that children – I’m talking of course of the losers, who should just rent a U Haul - are more likely to be negatively effected by moving out of neighborhoods they’ve grown up in. They are likely to be more often engated in violence, and dropping out of school, and if they stay in school, their grades suffer. (Castone McLahan, 1994; Tucker Marx Long, 1998;Pribesh Downey, 1999). In fact, one can speculate on the coincidence that spikes in drug taking and crime came at the same time as a higher rate of residential mobility in the sixties and seventies.
Of course, these sociological findings make it unlikely that the trip, so ardently wished for by the likes of Tyler Cowen or Kevin Drum, in which the unemployed dad and his wife and kids flee the ruins of the city for the glorious pastures of a better lifestyle through trade with our Pacific partners is really going to have that uplifting, Horatio Alger end. That’s the downer. On the other hand, if they do it, we can blame them for divorce, single parenthood, and crime! This is nice. Because the rule for our governor vis a vis the low use segment is: it's all your fault!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

hypnosis and description

Flaubert once said that if you gave your full attention to any object for long enough, it would become interesting. In this, Flaubert, whether he knew it or not, was certainly breaking with the old classical vision of the world. For Plato and Aristotle, there was an inherent hierarchy of worth in the world, an ontological as well as ethical hierarchy. The philosopher was he who ignored trivial objects and plastered his attention to worthier ones. Hair, or dirt, or dogs, or the way a candlestick looks on a piano, were unworthy of noting, of memorializing.
Well, while Flaubert was opining, with a rare uplift, about the value of attention, another Frenchman was experimenting with what had once been called mesmerism, and was now being called hypnotism. Charcot was discovering that you could lull a subject into hypnosis by having them fixate their attention on a bright object until they were, as it were, captured by it – entranced, or at least tranced.
Between the attention that increases the value of an object and the fixation of attention that captures the subject lies the description in narrative.
I’ve had ample opportunity to experiment with this, since, every night, after we read to Adam from one book in French and one book, almost always about dinosaurs recently, in English, we turn out the light and tell him a story about himself. Adam generally lays down the rules for the story, like he was ordering from a menu: I want me to be playing basketball and I want X and Y (his friends) to be Ironman and Batman and I want to be Clobberman. Or along that line.
Now, the thing is, whether Adam has been lulled by the books we read him or not, generally A. and I are. Sometimes I have a hard time keeping my eyes open as I read about the stegasaurus, one of the last of the dinosaurs in Adam’s favorite book. So in telling him a story that I make up, I’ve found that by the end of it, I might be wandering far afield. But if I am thinking about the story, I usually try to throw in a lot of description, or at least names of things, in the hope that this will lull Adam to sleep. If he goes down a path in the forest, I try to enumerate all the things he’ll pass: a pine tree, a live oak, a red oak, a maple tree, a willow, a chestnut tree, an elm tree, a redwood, a bramble bush, a sweet gum tree, a beech, a birch tree, a rhododendron, etc., etc. My theory is that the longer I stretch this out, the less Adam’s attention will be fixed on the forest and the more he will be sinking into slumber.
It works, at least, for me.

So I have thought a bit about the relationship between description in a fiction, the ‘world’ that fiction, or at least certain fictions, try to create, and the hypnotic envelopment in which the narrative’s horizon is overtaken. We do feel that certain novels create a world, one that we enter: but is this entrance like discovering a world, or being entranced by a brilliant pocket watch on a chain?