Texts William Eaton has been pleased to spend time with this week
[One in an ongoing series of posts. For the full series see Zeteo is Reading.]
23 December 2012: Sort of coming to an end
To a pre-Christmas dinner in Cambridge, Mass., I bring to my mother and one of my sisters copies of Wally Shawn’s Paris Review interview [Wallace Shawn, The Art of Theater No. 17]. I was alerted to this text by one of my Zeteo colleague’s posts last week. My colleague, Rachael Benavidez, was taken by Shawn’s appetite for life and theater. The lines that stayed in my mind were rather less upbeat:
The nineteenth century was perhaps the period when humans in the Western world were most exultant about the wonderfulness of those special abilities and the greatness of our species. Then in the twentieth century it became clear that our special abilities made our species capable of something unknown among the other species of the world—we seemed to have the ability to exterminate ourselves. Now, in the twenty-first century, we see that our special abilities enable us to extinguish all living things and life itself. So the period of crowing about the marvelousness of our species has sort of come to an end.
It has long been my sense that we humans, and Americans in particular, have trouble appreciating the effect of this progression on our psyches. In a relatively short space of time, what a change in our feelings about ourselves and about our potential.
24 December 2012: Sexual difference and art
At Darwin’s (Cambridge coffee shop) reading in Experiencing Animal Minds: An Anthology of Animal-Human Encounters (Columbia University Press). One of the pieces quotes from Elizabeth Grosz’s book on art, among other things: Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth:
Sexual selection, the consequence of sexual difference or morphological bifurcation—one of the earliest evolutionary upheavals in the evolution of life on earth, and undoubtedly the most momentous invention that life has brought forth, the very machinery for guaranteeing the endless generation of morphological and genetic difference, the very mechanism of biological difference itself—is also, by this fact, the opening up of life to the indeterminacy of taste, pleasure and sensation. . . . There is much “art” in the natural world, from the moment there is sexual sexual selection, from the moment there are two sexes that attract each other’s interest and taste through visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory sensations.
25 December 2012: The everlasting fire
On the train back to New York reading, hardly for the first time, in The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Written by Himself Containing a True and Full Account of the Discovery and Conquest of Mexico and New Spain. Once again frustrated by the conquistador’s fixation on battles and gold. Of course that was what the conquest of Mexico was all about, but the narrowness and relentlessness of the fixation may dampen a reader’s enthusiasm. In honor of Christmas Day, I will quote a passage on a somewhat secondary subject, from volume 1, chapter XC:
When our arrival was announced to Motecusuma, he advanced to the middle of the apartment to meet us, being solely attended by his nephew, as the other grandees were only allowed to enter his apartments upon very important occasions. After the first compliments had passed between the monarch and our general, they shook hands, and Motecusuma conducted Cortes to an elevated seat, and placed him at his right hand. The rest of us were also desired to sit down on chairs which were brought in for us. Cortes then, by means of our interpreters, addressed Motecusuma at considerable length: “He said . . . [t]here only now remained to disclose to him the commandments of our God. We were Christians, believing in one true God only, Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for our salvation. We prayed to the cross as an emblem of that cross on which our Lord and Saviour was crucified. By his death the whole human race was saved. He rose on the third day, and was received into heaven. By him, heaven, earth, and sea, and every living creature was formed: and nothing existed but by his divine will. Those figures, on the contrary, which he [Motecusuma] considered as gods, were no gods, but devils, which were evil spirits. It was very evident how powerless and what miserable things they were, since in all those places where we had planted the cross, those gods no longer durst make their appearance. Of this his ambassadors were fully convinced, and he himself would, in the course of time, be convinced of this truth. He begged he would also pay particular attention to something else he had to communicate.” Here Cortes very intelligently explained to him how the world was created, how all people were brothers, and sons of one father and mother, called Adam and Eve; and how grieved our emperor was to think that so many human souls should be lost, and sent to hell by those false idols, where they would be tormented by everlasting fire; . . .
Motecusuma, in reply, expressed himself as follows: “Malinche [i.e., Cortes]! What you have just been telling me of your God has, indeed, been mentioned to me before by my servants, to whom you made similar disclosures immediately upon your arrival off the coast. Neither am I ignorant of what you have stated concerning the cross and everything else in the towns you passed through. We, however, maintained silence, as the gods we adore were adored in bygone ages by our ancestors. We have, once for all, acknowledged them as good deities, in the same way as you have yours, and therefore let us talk no further on this subject. Respecting the creation of the world, we likewise believe it was created many ages ago. . . .
26 December 2012: Complexity, obfuscation, confusion
Reading in the latest New York Review of Books Andrew Hacker’s review of Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t. First, from Silver himself:
There is no reason to conclude that the affairs of man are becoming more predictable. The opposite may well be true. The same sciences that uncover the laws of nature are making the organization of society more complex.
“I’d only add,” Hacker continues:
it’s not just what sciences are finding that makes the world seem more complex. Shifts in the structure of occupations, abetted by more college degrees, have increased the number of positions deemed to be professional. If entrepreneurs tend to be assessed by how much money they amass, professionals are rated by the presumed complexity of what they know and do. So to retain or raise an occupation’s status, tasks are made more mysterious, usually by taking what’s really simple and adding obfuscating layers.
27 December 2012: The overstimulation of everyday life
A few weeks ago an old friend, Sidney Phillips, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, sent me copies of two of his papers, one of which—The Overstimulation of Everyday Life: II. Male Homosexuality, Countertransference, and Psychoanalytic Treatment—has led to an e-mail dialogue about the subject of overstimulation. Along the way Sid quoted from a new book by Donald Moss, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Man: Psychoanalysis and Masculinity, which opens with Moss’s reactions to an enormous Calvin Klein billboard in New York City that has
a gorgeous young man, naked except for his Calvin Klein briefs. Inside the briefs lurks an erection. Next to him leans a beautiful woman, her crotch barely covered by wide-mesh panties. The man has the face of a feasting lion: a mix of intense pleasure and latent ferocity. One of his hands grasps the elastic band of his briefs. He seems about to pull them off.
Moss, a psychoanalyst, proceeds to describe driving by this billboard everyday on the way to work.
Here I sit, then, in my fashionable suit and dignified automobile, waiting for the light to change: locked in, riveted, reduced to ogling, with my only sanctioned activity being to buy the briefs, which, on my body, would humiliatingly reveal the unbridgeable differences between this guy and me. I am simultaneously furious, provoked, competitive, disgusted, critical, engaged, thoughtful, abject, infantile, aged, superior, indifferent, captured, compliant . . . the list is long and kaleidoscopic. Its particulars shift slightly each morning as I encounter the image. . . . That is, each morning I am helpless.
28 December: Leaning to take it (or dropping out)
One of life’s greatest pleasures may turn out to be that of finding books—books one would otherwise never have read—and thus being taken to places (to possibilities) beyond the world of one’s daily imagining. A year or two ago I found in the trash-collection area of my apartment building a discarded book appropriately titled This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class, edited by C.L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law. I brought the book up to my apartment and put it on a shelf and did not read a page until this weekend, when the book caught my eye, and I flipped it open to a very engaging memoir by Stephen Garger, “The Bronx Syndrome,” from which I will here briefly quote. Garger, who became a professor of education, describes attending a small Catholic college in the Bronx (in the 1970s, I am guessing).
The majority of its students were local, and they brought a lot of good, if perhaps raw, intellectual potential to the campus. Yet it seemed that many of the professors resented having to teach us. One of them once described in class the mission of the school as “teaching the first generation of immigrant children how to eat with a knife and fork.” We knew we were being insulted, but in order to get as far as college we had learned that school was the one place in our experience where we couldn’t get in somebody’s face, specifically the teacher’s. So we took it. A lot of my friends who did not make it to college were those who would not stand for that kind of treatment; they insulted back, skipped classes or school altogether, and then they got in trouble. They dropped out of school or were kicked out.
One sees variations of such observations these days in discussions of boys’ struggles to keep up with girls in school. And in general it is worth noting, and not without sadness, that one of the things formal education teaches above all is to learn to take abuse, to include insults from narrow-minded people with more social status than we have. Thus are we prepared—and, in a sense, well prepared—to enter the work force.
29 December: The status quo
Reading more in This Fine Place So Far from Home, a truly inspiring book. This from an essay by John Sumser, the son of a machinist become a sociologist, and revealing some of the internal struggles of the transition:
The move from the working class into intellectual life is like the move from analog to digital watches. You can no longer watch me and know what I am doing. I am no longer stamping rubber tires onto plastic wheels, something I did for over a year (almost six wheels per minute, seven hours a day five days a week for fourteen months equals roughly 750,000 wheels). You certainly can’t watch me and know if I am doing my current work well or if I’m producing a soft version of scrap. . . . I have the good fortune to teach in a nonelite university system, which means that most of the students and a good many of the faculty do not come from privileged backgrounds. Unfortunately, the role of higher education seems to be to convert people away from productive lives and into basically parasitic occupations. And this, in turn, serves the needs of an economy in which labor is seen as an unfortunate by-product of the serious business of making money and collecting status awards.
And the following from an essay on “Psychology’s Class Blindness” by Deborah Piper, a psychotherapist whose parents who drove taxis, waited tables and did other odd jobs:
Rather than helping [economically disenfranchised] clients understand and deal with the life context that contributes to their hopelessness, their anger, and the manifestations of those feelings, most psychologists focus on the individual and how their cognition, emotions, or behaviors are dysfunctional. In this way, psychology tacitly supports the status quo of an unjust system.
This reminds me of a reading for a seminar taught in 1978 by the political scientist Robert Lane. Faced with a given problem one had effectively four choices: change the external dynamics that were causing the problem (e.g., one’s low income might be changed by union organizing); change one’s perception of these dynamics (the low pay is insignificant given how much I enjoy stamping rubber tires onto plastic wheels); change one’s self (go from tire-stamper to sociologist); or change one’s perception of oneself (in fact I really like relaxing at home after work with no papers to grade or phone calls to make, so I’m not really that unhappy with the low pay). It can be seen from this sketch that one’s perceptions are easier to change than external dynamics or one’s self. And this, we might say, is where the psychotherapist comes in.