On Reading Critically

There is no ought, objectively speaking. There is thus no gage of what “a modest amount of analysis” is; it varies from reader to reader, and from one prescriptive I-can-read-closer-than-thou snob to another.

In my last post, “In Defense of Good Television,” I believe I didn’t clarify a point integral to my argument. This oversight prompted the following comment from 1 in Washington, DC:

In Ulysses, James Joyce claims that he has left so many literary twists and turns that readers will be engrossed looking for them for the next century. Do you suggest that the reader simply gloss over the details and hope to gain a superficial understanding of the text? And that if he is to recognize some motif, then this is purely luck and should not be further looked into? I certainly agree that one should avoid the “pointy headed commentary” that is so often associated with this, but shouldn’t some works require a modest amount of analysis?

Part of me is tempted to say that James Joyce presents a special case in that he is, arguably, one of the most nuanced and multi-layered, if convoluted (to the point of abstruseness) writers of the past hundred-something years; the fact of the matter is that, for better or worse, most writers do not release works of such conceptual and cultural density.  This is not to dismiss your question, 1 in Washington, it’s just that writers of Joyce’s intellectual caliber should be approached differently than those who didn’t write Gordian tomes.  Modern literature, characterized by a degree of playfulness, irony, and aspiring to be more real in its mimesis (as it sought, unlike 19th century realism, to describe what is and not what ought to be), i.e. that which was produced by Joyce, Woolf, Stein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Proust, Faulkner, Pound, et al. contains innumerable pithy bits upon which I enthusiastically encourage readers to chew but do not stubbornly force to swallow.

I believe that there can be two modes of reading these (except in the case of Joyce): one could read them just for the sake of entertainment and mull over their findings from these texts in peace, or one could go into a text, pencil and highlighter and index cards or (if you are so inclined) Moleskine at the ready, and vivisect it, get one’s hands dirty with its viscera. Mince and slice in search of the sinew of Truth. It is not my place to say how one should read a text, nor is it my place to say which mode yields the more “significant” experience, nor, dare I say, is it yours, 1 in D.C.. Might it be a little presumptuous to suggest that understanding yielded from one mode of reading is less superficial than another? Forgive the relativism (it is a bit po-mo, don’t you think?), but speaking from experience, each mode of reading yields its own insights; the first mode yielded for me juicy moments of introspection, the second left me in awe of the author in question, of his or her craftsmanship and ability to commentate; the first yielded something more tangible for me, but the latter yielded more lofty insights that seemed, while impressive and worthy of putting in a paper for an analytical literature course, somewhat contrived, and in seeming so, felt cheap, hackneyed: as if this has been thought before.

I excepted Joyce for a reason, he, at least in my personal experience with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, can only be read in this latter mode.

I do not suggest breezing through texts, I believe in taking time with them, getting what one can from them, delving as deep as one wants, rather than as deep as one ought, and moving on. There is no ought, objectively speaking. There is thus no gage of what “a modest amount of analysis” is; it varies from reader to reader, and from one prescriptive I-can-read-closer-than-thou snob to another. I’m not saying that you, 1 in D.C., are one such snob. I’m just sayin’.

Ultimately, this touches at a larger issue: which is more valuable, a profound if self-involved understanding of one body of work or a broad-based knowledge of many? I’m partial to the cause of the amateur (in both the French and English meanings of the word), the dilettante.

I can sympathize with the specialist, but there is a danger of falling into the anti-historicist, decontextualized trap of New Criticism: a text is not a standalone island, it is part of an archipelago, its neighbors being those books coeval or stylistically similar to the one in question. They have birds, too: finches, but each with localized variation. I concede that I notice these variations, find them curious, mull them over, examine further to the extent I feel necessary, and move on. I might not write On the Origin of Species, but instead of focussing on the minutia, I’ll stick with the much-maligned “big picture.” I’m the cantankerous polymath of this over-extended metaphor; I’ll gladly pen The Selfish Gene instead. I won’t be the one-hit wonder.

In Defense of Good Television

Extremely well-done television provides an experience akin to reading well-done literary fiction. One empathizes with certain characters, embraces some, and reviles others.

This post is, in part, a response to my friend Ted Gonder’s recent post, “Is TV Worth Watching?” In part, it is a shameless defense of television as modern visual literature.

Like Ted, since going to college, I haven’t watched much television. I “was one of those people” who didn’t own a television; I was not self-righteous about it, nor did I engage in the self-referential humor particular to UChicago students about the volume of work they have to do that otherwise precludes them from watching TV.  Like many UChicago students, I did quite a bit of extra-curricular reading (much to the detriment of my GPA), but when even Woody Allen’s contributions to the New Yorker‘s “Shouts and Murmurs” section got a bit too cerebral for me, I watched, among other shows, Mad Men.

Now, I do not mean to intimate that Mad Men, one of the most aesthetically pleasing, thoroughly well-researched, and decidedly pro-masculine television programs on the air, is otherwise unworthy of my attention. Rather, extremely well-done television provides an experience akin to reading well-done literary fiction. One empathizes with certain characters, embraces some, and reviles others.  One effortlessly absorbs the periphery, those bits extraneous to plot but valuable to developing the aesthetics of the viewing experience, and in doing so one can marvel in the mimetic, artistic talent of the program’s writers, actors, and the behind-the-scenes people in the props and wardrobe departments. Television, and for that matter any variety of film-making, achieves what literature can’t. That which is in the shot’s background simply, without need for description, is. No valuable page-space need be expended; there is no risk of losing the reader’s attention by rattling off a laundry list of accoutrements and their particular details necessary to set the scene. 

Well-done television programming, like well-done literature, may provide great insight into the human condition, poignant social commentary, or the simple pleasure of rediscovering the “real” world through a fictional representation thereof.  To actively, critically search for these things conflates work and play. Doing so leads to the pretentious, pointy-headed, platitudinous commentary that pervades book reviews by Maureen Corrigan for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and class discussions in Advanced Placement English Literature courses, among other venues.  One should not have to justify watching television, be it cinematic, well-acted drama or lowbrow, increasingly perverse (sur)reality television, as an intellectual activity. Other forms of entertainment, literature chief among them, never require such justification.

I did not set down to re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise for my intellectual betterment.  I did so because it was read rather hastily in high school, and because I wanted to experience again the halcyon days of my adolescence, days whiled away in comfortable library chairs or idly spent on the beach dancing mentally to F. Scott’s sharp, frenetic Jazz Age style. Television, however, does not evoke such sentimentality.

It just so happens that Mr. Fitz dropped a lot of knowledge on me, or, rather, I revel privately in my insights into the meaning of college life, upon which I stumbled quite accidentally.  And I’ve learned much about masculinity by parsing the behavior of Mad Men‘s Don Draper into two categories: that which I consciously emulate, and those errors which I find reprehensible, but catch myself committing on occasion. I did not go looking for these insights. I watch television and read fiction for entertainment, for that is what, arguably, such media were designed for.  That increased emotional intelligence and self-awareness might result from its consumption is purely incidental. The fact that I’ve decoupled the need to find “teachable moments” in my media diet with the simultaneous need to occasionally be entertained allows me to savor said diet, and renders my “takeaways” more personal, less forced, and thus more significant.

Why Soccer is Not the New Football

I was extremely fortunate to have the day off yesterday, and I am still more fortunate to own a television with picture-in-picture capabilities. I was sitting in my room, watching the World Cup on ESPN and flipping between the USA-Algeria match and that between England and Slovenia and, suddenly, like an unwarranted smack to the face, it hit me: Americans do not belong in the announcers’ booth. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve gotten my fix through streaming Premier League games for years, and as a result I’ve just come to expect my announcers to speak with round vowels and drop the r’s in their words, or if it is something more significant: that, as a general rule, Americans sound silly when they try to speak authoritatively about the obscure sport, usually relegated to white, middle-class suburban 12-year old girls, known as “soccer.” 

To be precise, it’s been said bazillions of times that “the World Cup is a unifying event, bringing our World together to celebrate humanity, athleticism, and football.” [Emphasis mine] I don’t know if anyone has yet told the Americans, but their little game called “Football” has a fan-base several orders of magnitude smaller than what the rest of the world calls football.  Based on my personal boots-on-the-ground experience, excluding the quadrennial World Cup, Americans tend not to watch much soccer, and the general perception of the sport is remarkably similar to the median American’s perception of Europeans: vaguely effeminate, nuanced, confounding, and something to which the word “prancing” might be attached. 

But soccer has a certain fluidity to which American sports fans, spoon-fed on play-by-play analysis of “American football” and baseball, sports which proceed in fits and starts as if afflicted by a severe stutter and punctuated by brief narcoleptic fits, are unaccustomed.  The two aforementioned sports are characterized by a distinct lack of physical activity; to wit, there is a lot of standing around.  There are moments of frenetic, confused action and long stretches of television-friendly inactivity, which allow “experts” to analyze and quantify gameplay, make banal generalizations about such-and-such a player’s good day or bad day, flirt with attractive female anchors, and engage in an introspection particular to the American male: repressing homoerotic feelings whose origin lies in staring admiringly at sweaty men in tight pants. 

There are, however, two sports watched in America that move with any speed or continuity at all: basketball and hockey.  But basketball has numerous opportunities for time-outs, and both move sufficiently quick to hold the attention of even the most scatterbrained. It also must be said that hockey carries the promise of violence.  This brings to mind the quintessence of American sports, that they render masculinity in absurd burlesque: hypertrophied overweight men mashing into each other play football, tall sinewy men with veneers of urban toughness in baggy shorts play basketball, the beer-drinking All-American man-child wanders about on the Field of Dreams, and Caucasian men from northern climes put on their pads, pick up their sticks, take a whack at a hunk of rubber, and occasionally make a boxing match of what is, ultimately, Ice Follies without the women.

 Not only are Americans unaccustomed to the fluid, organic play of elite-level soccer, they find themselves incapable of articulating what is going on: inculcated with the argot of AYSO, we play our games on fields not pitches, wear shoes not boots, and the guy in the ugly long-sleeved shirt and fat-fingered gloves is a goalie and not a keeper.  That we so obstinately refer to “American football” as football at all perplexes me, as it is a game played with hands.  

This all leads me to believe that Americans, devoid of the attention-span and the capacity to articulate nuance necessary to be a successful footballer, despite success yesterday over a surprisingly formidable Algeria, will continue obdurately with their current mode of play: running up the middle, flouting all rules of verve and politeness, and play aggressive Shock-and-Awe tactics, wearing their opponents down not by outsmarting them, but by grinding them into submission with salvo after salvo of poorly-planned carpet-bombing to the box. The law of large numbers applies here, that given enough shooting opportunities even the most stylistically devoid of teams will find weakness in their superiors.  

Physically speaking, soccer players are as close to perfect as possible: lean and toned, muscular in the legs and upper body, and capable of preternatural mental and physical endurance.  The American team is a bit too tall, a bit too muscular, and are clunky on the field. It might take a little while for Americans to realize that on the global stage, when it comes to physical prowess and stylistic verve, we just don’t cut it. There is a reason why the World Series consists of one city’s team playing another; we like our American exclusivity, and would likely lose if we had to come up with a home-grown national team a la the World Cup. The Dominican Republic, Cuba, or Japan would likely win that one.  In the world of soccer, we are, for now, lucky, and sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. It will run out, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps not. But it will.

Why I Am So Happy

In trying to find a writer who provided an articulate, cogent framework upon which I could build my nascent pessimism, I was surprised when I found William Hazlitt, an Englishman born in 1778, whose words so accurately and punishingly vivisect modern American “culture,” or lack thereof.

It is difficult to be an optimist these days: what with the increased stultifying powers of the internet, a decrease in youth literacy concomitant to the above, the insipidity of “liking” things, radicalization of politicians on both sides of the aisle, the real and present danger of global warming, and the recent ongoing British Petroleum disaster that turned the once warm, inviting waters of the Gulf of Mexico into a tepid, reeking, carcinogenic petrochemical spittoon; this is to say nothing of the disaster’s media blitz: the “small people” railing against the charming bespoke-suited executives of BP, the constant, circular analysis of the disaster, the little “spill cam” feed on CNN, the heartbreaking photographs of little greasy seabirds, and the inevitability of oil entering the loop currents and eventually sullying the white, sandy, WASPy beaches of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard lead me to believe that this is only the beginning of something much, much worse. Soon, when oil seeps into the inland waterways of Florida, we will see images of slick black alligators, and those Gulf-residing dolphins that do not inhale or swallow tar balls might evolve, such that the corners of their mouth will invert from their current upward-turning, “smiling” configuration into a moping, “woe is me” frown. I will cry my crocodile tears for BP, and keep watching disaster porn.

For a long time, I considered myself an optimist. Over the past year or so, however, I’ve changed my mind.

In trying to find a writer who provided an articulate, cogent framework upon which I could build my nascent pessimism, I was surprised when I found William Hazlitt, an Englishman born in 1778, whose words so accurately and punishingly vivisect modern American “culture,” or lack thereof. The essays from which I will quote are collected in On the Pleasure of Hating, one of the slim volumes in Penguin’s Great Ideas series. Hazlitt makes compelling arguments for the centrality of hate, not hope or love or optimism, as the driving force of human nature, and nature itself. “Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men.” We may be driven to succeed out of personal, self-serving pride, for the “white streak of our own fortunes” becomes all the brighter by painting those around us “as dark as possible.” 

What bothers me so about the current state of affairs can be boiled down to the transactions on Facebook: the relative ease with which one can “like” something, the inherent passivity of this approbation, and its resultant superficiality. One need not rationalize praise, or provide an exegesis on the favorable thing’s favorability.  One “likes” because it is socially expedient to do so, but “the pleasure rises to its height in some moment of calm solitude or intoxicating sympathy, declines ever after, and from the comparison and conscious falling-off, leaves rather a sense of satiety and irskomeness behind it… it is because pleasure asks a greater effort of the mind to support it than pain; and we turn, after a little idle dalliance, from what we love to what we hate.”

Although I am tempted to scan and post the entirety of the essay, our fair nation’s copyright law precludes me from doing so. Instead, I will quote at length a passage regarding the popularization of certain public intellectuals: “The popularity of the most successful writers operates to wean us from them, by the cant and fuss that is made about them, by hearing their names everlastingly repeated, and by the number of ignorant and indiscriminate admirers they draw after them: we as little like to have to drag others from their unmerited obscurity, lest we should be exposed to the charge of affectation and singularity of taste.” Most of Hazlitt’s works are out of print, and the brief, resurgent interest in his work in the 1990’s has long passed.  I understand that I risk being accused of snobbery, “singularity of taste,” although I highly recommend On The Pleasure of Hating, not for Hazlitt’s relative, unmerited obscurity, but for the dancing, mincing bellicosity of his prose style; although, “I confess it makes me hate the very name of Fame and Genius when works like these are ‘gone into the wastes of time’, while each successive generation of fools is busily employed in reading the trash of the day…”

It is my pessimism, I believe, that makes me so happy. Instead of shirking cognitive toil through giving in to the saccharine, inoffensive “like,” I engage myself with picking apart everything, attempting to understand a subject’s intricate inner workings, and in so doing often find that my subject isn’t what it was made out to be: that true genius is exceedingly rare and what often masquerades as genius, at least in the world of arts, letters, and business is lexical onanism. I am not disappointed, for such “let downs” merely reinforce my belief in maintaining my pessimism, as a general rule of thumb.  I expect the disappointment, the downfall of ideas and people burdened with the hopes and dreams of many, and am thus prepared for it. BP is not, contrary to the 2001 rebranding effort, Beyond Petroleum.

Although I am a pessimist, I am not a cynic, like Hazlitt.  I believe that there exists pure genius and  pure, wholehearted, well-meaning people. When confronted with moments of transcendent, sublime happiness and fulfillment I do not pick these moments apart: I embrace them as genuine, not as farce.

 There is another quote by William Hazlitt which I find particularly poignant: “the art of life is knowing how to enjoy a little and endure much.” It is likely the case that one takes pleasure in hating because it frees one from the insipid, bovine groupthink that pervades the modern media and cultural landscape, but hating all and embracing none is the recipe for a sad life. I understand that moments of white-hot joy are ephemeral, and so I let them go when they must; I do not seek to love all eternally, for “love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal.”

Starbucks: Commendable or Untenable?

The answer: because people like to think that they are “generating grass-roots social change” and, as a general rule, don’t particularly enjoy writing checks to charity, they can have their (coffee) cake and eat it too by supporting allegedly impoverished, illiterate, disease afflicted individuals in third world countries with the purchase of their venti-soy-iced-carmel-macchiato-with-an-extra-shot. They can sleep easily at night (provided that the caffeine wore off) knowing that they did their piece to end world hunger, or poverty, or lack of clean drinking water (that means you, ETHOS), or whatever.

In the past three days, I’ve probably frequented at least three different Starbucks coffee shops to keep my brain whirring at a relatively high RPM as I approach finals week.  I remember a while back that Starbucks made quite the stink about the fair-trade-ness of a limited release batch of coffee, how they sourced if from small, family-owned Colombian coffee growing operations, or some variation on this bucolic imagery. Why bother advertising this? The answer: because people like to think that they are “generating grass-roots social change” and, as a general rule, don’t particularly enjoy writing checks to charity; they can have their (coffee) cake and eat it too by supporting impoverished, illiterate, disease afflicted people in third world countries with the purchase of their venti-soy-iced-carmel-macchiato-with-an-extra-shot. They can sleep easily at night (provided that the caffeine wore off) knowing that they did their piece to end world hunger, or poverty, or lack of clean drinking water (that means you, ETHOS), or whatever.

This leads me to believe that the average Starbucks customer, indeed, the identity of Starbucks itself,  is at once the socially aware, un-showered, Bohemian Whole Foods shopper and the ruthless, BMW driving, MBA-ed yuppie–clearly, a contentious and awkward situation indeed. It doesn’t like to mention this latter persona. The average Starbucks customer must also have a relatively short memory, because a few years ago one of the 24-hour news outlets–ever in need of a story–did a piece on how Starbucks systematically underpays its coffee suppliers for their crop, and that because of corporate “greed” hundreds of people are living in complete destitution. Granted, newsmongers have a penchant for sensationalism, but they have a point: something doesn’t pass the smell test when, due to pricing power, a large corporate entity simultaneously drives down the market rates of its raw materials and rapidly, absurdly inflates the price (and pretension) of what was once a pretty pedestrian product: a cup of joe. 

I’m not necessarily saying that what Starbucks is doing is wrong per se, it just doesn’t sit right with me. So here’s my question: is it ethical for a corporation to engage in generating the cliched grassroots change, or any charity for that matter, to scrub clean a tarnished corporate reputation? Furthermore, is it ethical to use such charitable giving as a selling point?

I was fortunate enough to have lunch with a prominent Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, Robert Fogel, with a good friend of mine. On the wall of his office was a picture of himself, Gary Becker, and Milton Friedman: which makes him, rather decidedly, a member of the Chicago school of economics. Fogel made it clear that Chicago economists believe that in all situations the market efficiently distributes resources among its participants; what he didn’t say, but what Friedman said explicitly, is that the use of corporate resources–which are, after all, shareholder resources–in charitable activities is tantamount to theft from shareholders, not explicitly, because they are frittering away a portion of someone’s retirement fund, but implicitly: they are taking from shareholders the potential earnings from assets allocated to socially-minded endeavors.  The explicit cost to shareholders, in short, is the opportunity cost of the earnings from capital investment.

Does buying slightly more expensive coffee constitute what Freidman is essentially calling fraud? You bet it does; it is not the duty of publicly held companies to engage in “social business” with shareholder money; such decisions are essentially unilateral because, let’s face it, so few shareholders will go through the time to do due diligence research and vote on these issues. Because we shareholders are lazy, that’s why.

I’m now forgetting who, but I’m willing to wager it was Miamonides (or maybe it was just uninterpreted Talmudic law) that dictates to followers that it is unethical to do charity work and tell people about it. All charity, according to this principle,  should be anonymous. This seems to fly in the face of modern, “enlightened” social business.  Why does what Starbucks is doing seem so, well, icky? Because they are doing “good work” not necessarily because it is the ethos of the company dictates it, not because the shareholders gave explicit approval, but because (a) they are trying to reinvent themselves as a socially minded business to garner approbation from socially minded consumers and (b) telling a good sob story with a readily available quick fix (buying a pound of super-ethically-sourced coffee) is a fantabulous way to boost sales… even if, on the surface, it “is for all the right reasons.” Keep in mind, it’s not Starbucks giving the money, it’s you to whom Starbucks passes on the burden of giving, and it’s your stock portfolio that could suffer for it. But, again, you’ll be able to sleep, and you’ll be able to keep real social problems at arm’s length: out of sight, out of mind, but in your favorite mug.

Are you too smart for college?

What I believe the value of a “college education” to be is the following: the formalistic academic environment provided by our nations’ colleges and universities provides its young people with the framework–the papers, the reading assignments, the problem sets, etc.–to undertake the rather formidable task of consuming and digesting giant quantities of information, and, hopefully, be able to articulate it come the time for an exam or term paper.

Over the course of the past week, as I begin to say good byes and good lucks to my friends graduating from the University of Chicago, I’ve been doing some thinking. Why am I going through the process of “getting a college education?” Which I suppose can be rephrased as “what is a ‘college education,’ what’s so important about it, and why do I have to pay so much for one when all I’m doing is writing papers and reading books?” This quickly degenerates into an eggheaded discussion about what, ontologically, “education” is: I am not here to have that discussion, nor do I want to have it. Ever again.

What I believe the value of a “college education” to be is the following: the formalistic academic environment provided by our nations’ colleges and universities provides its young people with the framework–the papers, the reading assignments, the problem sets, etc.–to undertake the rather formidable task of consuming and digesting giant quantities of information, and, hopefully, be able to articulate it come the time for an exam or term paper. It is assumed by unwitting and idealistic faculty that “critical thinking” skills, among others, are picked up along the way. However, and I am not the first to say it, the internet and its attendant social networks and carefully hidden pockets of clandestine information have fundamentally changed the way that my classmates and I undertake the learning process; to wit, it is easier to get academic work “out of the way” without much intellectual effort in order to develop other projects. In short, we’ve hacked college. Most of us “get it done,” not for its own sake–”to learn and to grow”–but to GTFO, so to speak, and, as one of my fellow economics major friends so eloquently put it, “make shit-tons of money.”

If there is one thing that this year has taught me, it is the two flavors of motivation: does one pursue a goal as a means to some other end or as an end in itself? I, personally, have been straddling both sides of this duality, but as of late firmly decided that I only get to “do” college once, and thus I will devote myself as fully to the academic portion of it as possible. However, it seems that the pedagogical focus of the “modern college experience”–building a social network and padding a resume–is, effectively and convincingly, the cynosure among business-minded students–even at the ferociously eggheaded UChicago.

Consider the following conjecture: If you are the entrepreneurial type, the type who wants to get out there and get something started, or if you believe that academia is holding you back from what you want to do, take it from someone who’s read way too much in his life: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx won’t make you successful. They will, however, help you find significance in your accomplishments. If you’re the retrospective type, one that cerebrates post hoc, you’ll be able to educate yourself later not because society is telling you to, but because you can approach that process with the same zeal with which you approach your current projects. If you have all of these great world-changing ideas, the wherewithal to see them through to execution and are willing to forego the short-term social cache of a college degree, then find an experienced mentor or two, build your network, and get cracking.

Parents often counter their college-bound teens’ assertions that many of today’s most prosperous companies were started by college drop-outs with the fact that their founders were smart enough to get into college in the first place. Bill Gates was also smart enough to realize that if he didn’t start Microsoft, somebody else would.

I’m not making any claims to being too smart for college. I enjoy academic life, and I want the social validation of a degree. I am, in fact, too cowardly to take the plunge into starting my projects in earnest now; few are willing to make that leap, and that’s the point. That said, I am currently researching options for a gap year.