Friday, July 29, 2016

just say no to freakonomic parenting

There’s a lovely passage in an essay by Cynthia Ozick about the trick of personal identity. She is writing about seeing herself as an old woman, and feeling a certain “generational pang” about seeing young people rise up in the literary world that she has long been part of.
“All the same, whatever assertively supplanting waves may lap around me – signals of redundancy, or of superannuation – I know I am held fast. Or, rather, it is not so much a fixity of self as it is of certain exactnesses, neither lost nor forgotten; a phrase, a scene, a voice, a momment. These exactnesses do not count as memory, and even more surely escape the net of nostalgia or memoir. They are platonic enclosures, or islands, independent of time, though not of place: in short, they irrevocably are. Nothing can snuff them.”
This exactness of the person is what so painfully escapes me, what so painfully is missing, when I read about parenting. Amy Davidson, in this week’s New Yorker, reviews what is surely the stupidest guide to parenting ever monstrously given birth to by a publishing house: “The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting: How the Science of Strategic Thinking Can Help You Deal with the Toughest Negotiators You Know—Your Kids” 
The title is merely the diving board of bad: from Davidson’s account, it gets badder and badder. Davidson’s review is a roundup of parenting books, and all of them share the characteristic that there is no exactness in them – either for the kids or the parents. The only desire the parents have is, apparently, order and peace. This is the setup from the getgo.
“Say that you have two children, or maybe three, and that they fight for what’s theirs. The contested objects are many: cake, Lego sets, the right to various household electronics or to name the family dog. And the children aren’t pleasant about it: they torment each other, and engage in guerrilla tactics distinguishable from those of ruthless insurgents only by their disregard for stealth, which might at least allow you, the parent, a little peace and quiet. Each of them has a story about fairness and what he deserves.
The idea that contested objects are just there, and that adults are making no territorrial claims through those objects, seems pretty laughable. But it is laughable on a very political order: notice how the blank parents here are on one side, the side of the self evident, and the children on the other side, the side of the insurgents. Sound familiar? Yes, it is neo-colonialism coming to your living room. In that political environment, the freakanomics guide to childrearing is perfectly appropriate, since neo-liberalism is based on the premise that exactness is an obstacle – individuality is entirely defined by consumer choice. No voice, gesture or place that is immune from creative destruction and substitution.
Davidson, happily, is not endorsing the “game theorist” view of family management in her article, but she does, less happily, picture a family setting as a sort of blankness in which the libido plays no part. Parents are perfect little death drives, repetitious little automaton who only want peace. The peace, apparently, of deathly order. Children, as is weirdly common in articles about children, exist only as monsters of disorder. They are either stuffed and cute, or monstrous and quarreling. There is nothing to be thought about them – they do not give rise to thought.  Exactness here doesn’t have a place or name.
We are a long way from Spock and Dolto. I don’t like the journey, frankly, but I do find it noteworthy, inasmuch as it so exactly reflects the political moment.  
“What the book shares with the current parenting moment is the sense that trust is a commodity that’s in very short supply. Thomas, for example, is getting reasonable grades “in his elementary school’s gifted-and-talented program,” but is he really doing his best? Or is he “fibbing” about how hard he’s working, “thinking about Minecraft” when he should be hunkered down with his book project? Raeburn and Zollman suggest deploying the “principal-agent model” to manage the case of “possible underperformers such as Thomas,” with the caveat that, if the incentives are too great, he’d have good reason to cheat. Without measures like “perfect monitoring” and “credible threats” (“Parents and caregivers can use each other as Doomsday machines”), children will give in to a tendency to lie. In the world of game theory, this is not so much a moral problem as a practical one. Without constant child-control manipulations, the middle-class home will fall apart, and there are no limits to the anxiety this creates.”

I cant stand it. I just cant stand it, to quote charley brown quoting sam beckett.   

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

on not knowing what pokemon go is

To pay attention to pop culture takes energy – like anything else. One can choose to pay attention to, say, Taylor Swift’s feud with Kim Kardashian or not, but attention is not free, and the payoff is not guaranteed. Perhaps, in the end, the feud won’t amuse you. Perhaps it will even leave a sour feeling – you will feel like you didn’t want to go into it.
The pop culture rush, which is administered by thousands of media sites, is supposed to overwhelm any  prudence you might feel about your attention, and even make it laughable that you haven’t “given” it to some phenomenon that everybody knows about. Usually, the media sites can rely on shaming techniques among the audience, who will pick some certain piece of information and make the person who doesn’t know that piece of information feel embarrassed about his ignorance. Shame and information are linked from our earliest days. I see myself using shame, ocassionally, to make Adam know things. I find it weird, when I step back, that I do this. But I do.  Classrooms use this to the extent that a small, attenuated ring of shame is put around the “great books”, or about this or that piece of information in the sciences.
Myself, in the last few weeks I have run into mentions of Pokemon Go whenever I look at a newspaper or magazine. Pokemon go jokes are all over twitter. Yet, so far, I haven’t given my attention to it even to extent of knowing what it is.  Of course, saying this is rather like reversing the poles, and making knowing about Pokemon Go shameful; but I am not trying to head there – instead, the question is at what point a critical mass in pop culture makes one feel that this is something I have to know. Especially if you are a writer trying continually to get a fix on the culture, this is the kind of question you do have to ponder. James Joyce assumed that  a free lance marketer in Dublin in 1904  would know about the semi-smutty stories of Paul de Kock,  and about the paper Tit-bits, and about many of the day’s popular songs.  Ullyses is one of the few novels ever written that tries to exhaust the question of what a character at a given date in a given place would know. Since 1904, the intrusion of popular culture – of images, songs, and games – into the sphere of private life has become exponentially greater.  Even Joyce refined his references. Would a Leonard Bloom in 2016 know, or want to know, about Pokemon Go?

So far, my answer is no. It isn’t as important, or at least it doesn’t float in the semiosphere with such importance, that 2016 would not be describable without it. But I don’t exactly know how I know this. One creates a filter for pop culture information semi-consciously. As much as we live in a hype world, we don’t have a firm idea of where these filters come from. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

london calling opening

Where'd I see this guy? 

Last night we went to the opening of the London Calling show at the Getty. I hated the title, since the Clash song – which the DJ played as we ate fish and chips and drank our wine – is about rioting and the ice age (Thatcherism), not the particular bourgeois fantasies enacted in the paintings in the show. Not that I am criticizing those fantasies, far from it – but there was no punk sensibility there.

The works by Frank Auerbach, Leon Kosoff, Lucien Freud, R.B. Kitaj, and Michael Andrews – composed, according to the curator, Julian Brooks (I think – I couldn’t hear the name of the gent who was supposed to lead the invitees through the justification for the exhibition), a school of London that showed that New York critics who, in the fifties, had proclaimed the death of figuration were wrong. It was a pretty plain aesthetic argument, and I think a false one. Abstraction not only submerged figuration, it produced the conditions that would assure that its resurrection could only be as a damaged style. Indeed, for all Brooks’s burbling about Lucien Freud’s work showing the finest appreciation of the human figure since Rubins,  what was evident was how under the influence of the bomb and the scrawl these painters generally were. Figuration as damage, as casualty: this was the response to abstraction I saw.

My favorite was the Auerbach room. These were truly physical pictures, documents not only of choses vues but the aggregation of material, the clogging, in the visual channel, the eye brought down from its angelic flight into the nervy impulse that organizes it as a thing on a stalk. I’d like to look at those pieces again. I suppose the most famous pieces are the canonical ones in the Bacon room, although myself, I prefered the bicycle pic – a reminder that Bacon was, after all, Irish. I thought of Flann O’brian’s The Third Policeman, that eccentric paen to the bicycle.
What else? L.A., as always, looks terrific from the terrace – the twilight coming in, the mist (or smog, or is it ash?) over the buildings.

Lovely night, really.  

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...