1. If only I’d held off on writing about sushi and productivity a couple days, I could’ve leaned on Leon Wieseltier’s masterful column for The New York Times Book Review, “Among the Disrupted.” It stands out amongst the sobering (translation: grim) crop of forecasts that have appeared over the first week of the year. I almost wish I didn’t agree with so much of what he writes, but alas, it’s hard to object when your arms have been nailed to the wall…! The erstwhile New Republic editor’s prognostications cover a remarkable amount of ground, from intellectual and journalistic history to epistemology and technology-related impoverishment, even ‘the singularity’ gets a nod. While some may detect a wiff of curmudgeonliness, Wieseltier’s assessment of the challenges facing our society is ultimately as eloquent as it is incisive, the kind of thing that makes you not want to pick up a pen for a while. Of course, I doubt I’ll be able to resist writing about it at greater length next week. For now, here’s his trenchant take on the ‘cult of productivity’, which demanded more bold than is usually advisable, ht TB:

road-to-utopia-movie-poster-1945-1020143715There are “metrics” for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology.

The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past… Such transformations embolden certain high priests in the church of tech to espouse the doctrine of “transhumanism” and to suggest, without any recollection of the bankruptcy of utopia, without any consideration of the cost to human dignity, that our computational ability will carry us magnificently beyond our humanity and “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains…”

And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. The contrary insistence that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex, now amounts to a kind of heresy.

So, too, does the view that the strongest defense of the humanities lies not in the appeal to their utility — that literature majors may find good jobs, that theaters may economically revitalize neighborhoods — but rather in the appeal to their defiantly nonutilitarian character, so that individuals can know more than how things work, and develop their powers of discernment and judgment, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty, to equip themselves adequately for the choices and the crucibles of private and public life.

Wieseltier ends the piece with a stirring defense of ‘humanism’–which he differentiates from what that word normally signifies these days (i.e. inflated anthropology)–and while we/I still might offer a cross-shaped caveat or three, this is clearly a voice that needs to be heard. When he links the over-quantification of life to its over-utilization, what he’s talking about is our fatal love affair with the Law. After all, a low anthropology posits control as a universal addiction, and quantification and utilization are nothing if not tools of control. So what’s changed here is the ease and availability of the means of control — the end (self-justification) is the same as it ever was. Lord have mercy.

2. Elsewhere in that publication, David Brooks has been on a tear, calling out those on our shores who would chant “I Am Charlie Hedbo” while muting all but the safest viewpoints on their campuses (for example). Cue Chris Rock. But perhaps the more relevant column of his dealt with the term “meaning” or “meaningfulness”, which he believes has come to serve as a stand-in for actual, well, meaning. I’m not sure exactly what alternative he would propose–vacuous non-judgment remains preferable to ideological nitpicking (certainly less tiring)–but still:

If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.

Meaningfulness tries to replace structures, standards and disciplines with self-regarding emotion. The ultimate authority of meaningful is the warm tingling we get when we feel significant and meaningful. Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity. It’s a paltry substitute. Because meaningfulness is built solely on an emotion, it is contentless and irreducible.

That last part might be a tad overstated, as emotions are not exactly insubstantial, but I take his point. Only thing I might add would be a dose of trust in the notion that reality is, in fact, singular, that the meaning behind our ‘meanings’ will have the final word over whatever fluctuating interpretations we give (whether we like it or not!). At least, that’s what this guy claims.

3. “Meaning” is not the only buzzword under the knife this week. You may have read that Miriam-Webster announced recently that “culture” was the 2014 word of the year (my money was on ‘optimization’). That is, it experienced the biggest uptick in usage and reference on their website. Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker wrote a wonderful column a couple weeks ago that offered a few theories about what might lie behind the phenomenon. Hint: it’s not that Christians have become so enamored of the word. In fact, just the opposite:

“Culture” used to be a good thing. Now it’s not. That isn’t to say that American culture has gotten worse. (It has gotten worse in some ways, and better in others.) It’s to say that the word “culture” has taken on a negative cast. The most positive aspect of “culture”—the idea of personal, humane enrichment—now seems especially remote. In its place, the idea of culture as unconscious groupthink is ascendent.

In the postwar decades, “culture” was associated with the quest for personal growth: even if you rejected “establishment” culture, you could turn to “the counterculture.” In the eighties, nineties, and aughts, it was a source of pride: the multiculturalist ethos had us identitying with our cultures. But today, “culture” has a furtive, shady, ridiculous aspect. Often, when we attach the word “culture” to something, it’s to suggest that it has a pervasive, pernicious influence (as in “celebrity culture”). At other times, “culture” is used in an aspirational way that’s obviously counterfactual: institutions that drone on about their “culture of transparency” or “culture of accountability” often have neither. On all sides, “culture” is used in a trivializing way: there’s no real culture in “coffee culture” (although the coffee at Culture, a coffee shop near my office, is excellent). But, at the same time, it’s hard to imagine applying the word “culture” to even the most bona-fide “cultural institutions.” We don’t say that MOMA fosters “art culture,” because to describe art as a “culture” is, subtly, to denigrate it. In 1954, when the magazine Film Culture was founded, its name made movie lovers sound glamorous. Today, it sounds vaguely condescending.

4. Social Science Study of the Week, ht BJ: the one reported in The Atlantic and published in the journal Personal Relationships, which suggested that “for women who do want to lose weight, hearing these types of accepting messages can lead to better success in dieting than being surrounded by people who point out their need to lose weight.” Go figure!

5. Theological quote of the week comes to us from 16th century Anglican priest Richard Hooker, writing on justification: “The scope of Christian doctrine is the comfort of them whose hearts are overcharged with the burden of sin”. Amen to that.

6. A heartening check on self-righteousness appeared in The NY Times via an article on the all-too-timely subject of unconscious racial bias. The final paragraph was too good not to reproduce, ht SZ:

Ugly pockets of conscious bigotry remain in this country, but most discrimination is more insidious. The urge to find and call out the bigot is powerful, and doing so is satisfying. But it is also a way to let ourselves off the hook. Rather than point fingers outward, we should look inward — and examine how, despite best intentions, we discriminate in ways big and small.

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Another day, another Wodehousing!

7. Humor-wise, the funniest thing I read this week was a quote from the new book of interviews with German director/personality Werner Herzog, which was highlighted by Joshua Rothman. Herzog is recounting a panel discussion with several documentary filmmakers at a film festival long ago. The other directors on the panel were devotees of cinéma vérité, whereas Herzog “is a fabulist, famous for inserting made-up facts and scenes into his documentaries at every turn.” Herzog gets fed up with his companions in a way that only Herzog can:

“I say here to adherents of cinéma-vérité: I am no bookkeeper; my mandate is poetry. I want to be involved. I want to shape and sculpt, to stage things, to intrude and invent. I want to be a film director. I was the only person at the festival arguing against these morons. . . . I couldn’t take it any longer. I grabbed a microphone and said, “I’m no fly on the wall. I am the hornet that stings.” There was an immediate uproar, so not having anything more to say, I shouted out, “Happy New Year, losers.” And that was that.

God bless that man! The Onion produced a couple of, er, stingers itself with  “Area Man Only One With Problems” and “Mother Trying Her Best To Project Same Amount Of Insecurities Onto All Her Daughters”. Don’t miss 10 People Who Made No Difference in 2014. Then over the break Clickhole made me laugh with, “Everything You Need To Know About The Dangerous Teen Trend ‘Wodehousing’”.

8. Poetic discovery of the last two weeks would be Franz Wright’s “The Only Animal”. The final line — holy moly! (You can hear him read it here).

9. In music, feels appropriate (if still really sad) that gospel maverick Andrae Crouch would leave us to see his King so close to Elvis’ Presley’s 80th birthday. My favorite collaboration of theirs would be this. Speaking of EP, New Yorkers (and all those in the tri-state area), are warmly invited to a special event later this month in Manhattan (below). Would sure be nice to see/meet you. More info here.

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Strays:
– Before Christmas fades entirely from view, Over the Rhine’s recent holiday release warrants a mention. That song “Another Christmas” slayed me.
– In religion, The New Republic dubbed 2014 “The Year of Mindfulness”, documenting how the ultimate non-utilitarian practice has been co-opted by self-improvement, while Emma Green surveyed the smoldering remains of the culture war, Christian rage in particular.
– Mockingbird is on Instagram! Sort of. Find us at @mockingbirdnyc.
– Mbird friend/advisor/art historian/conference speaker Dan Siedell has a new website (dansiedell.com)! Check it out here and be sure to tell your friends.
– Lastly, this looks cool: