Thursday, January 29, 2015

Back to Nature

Why do so many body-builders and strength athletes die relatively young?  In response to this question, whose empirical validity I am not concerned to question right now (but witness this), I offer the following meditation. 

Keith Norris has written eloquently somewhere about the empirical reality that survival and performance become increasingly separate and even opposite goals as you reach the limits of human capacity for exertion. At some point, exerting more now means trading in longevity. I cannot go full-blast all the time, or most of the time, without burning my chronological candle down faster than I would otherwise.  

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that civilization teaches us to avoid "down time" in the name of achieving more. The elite athlete aims not to live long and happy, as an athlete, but to achieve something extraordinary with his (or her) body. There is no such thing as "resting on one's laurels" (as always happens in foraging societies: a big kill or brush with death is followed by a lot of napping and doing nothing, except maybe eating). The result of civilization's lack of contentment with survival is that we approach athleticism (especially the elite kind) as work, as a job. We seek short-term profits (big achievements) at the expense of longevity. When we go, we go full-bore (and burn really bright before going out early). When we stop (retiring with some career-ending injury or accumulation of injuries), we quit entirely. The forager works hard, yes, but he also rests hard. He cannot stop, unless he wants to die, and his life-rhythm is very different from the "all or nothing, win or lose" pace set by elite athletes. 

Civilization seems to represent a kind of ongoing fragmentation in humanity whereby accidental strengths--and their concomitant weaknesses--are allowed an exaggerated expression. If I am predisposed to be very quick and strong, then civilization offers me the leisure to become an extreme phenotype. If I am predisposed to be mentally agile, then civilization offers me the leisure to become an extreme phenotype. The viability of extreme phenotypes is always less in nature than in civilization, and even in the latter we observe that extremity is often associated with early mortality (and other material handicaps: I am thinking in particular of purebred dogs here, as well as humans; one could also think of domestic sheep and cattle, which offer their human masters more milk, flesh, and wool at the expense of being too stupid and fat to survive without supervision). 

'Uncivilisation' as a corrective to the extremities that civilization increasingly pushes requires some 'return to the mean' where physical and mental activity is concerned. If humans want to avoid dying early and prematurely crippled in some facet of their phenotype, they need to return to a life more like that of their ancestors--a life that offers them unstructured time for recuperation from strenuous labor. We need strenuous labor. But we also need rest. And we need both, the labor and the rest, to take place in environments less structured than the boxes constructed by civilization (the job site, the gym, the university). We need to return to nature, to learn again how to work and rest under the sun, moon, and stars. We need to learn the rhythms of nature outside in addition to the rhythms of our own internal humanity.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Real Education

The power of degrees to draw salaries wanes as more people obtain degrees: this is one viable lesson that they still teach in economics, though many PhDs seem to have missed it (or to think that creative mathematics can make it disappear, more or less the same way astrology used to correct character flaws).

What matters more than "education" is the right kind of education (i.e. training in a viable, sustainable method of living). Given our current circumstances, this sort of education is really unpopular: it does not put money or influence or raw power into the hands of established interests (who consequently found few institutions to teach it, endow few scholarships or professorships to facilitate it, and use whatever political and social clout they possess generally to mock and undermine it). The right kind of education requires a student able to imagine living a life unlike that of his parents (or the rich people of his parents' generation, whose mores he is constantly bombarded with as desirable insofar as they make him easier for established interests to manipulate--via debts, social obligations, and desire for "nice things" made in a sweatshop somewhere). It requires radical freedom of thought--not the kind of regimented bean-counting that stops short of articulating any idea remotely threatening to established interests (who understandably position themselves as pillars of social and political and economic stability, even as history reveals that they are built upon sand that is shifting as we speak).

Real education involves living, not just thinking. It cannot come from a classroom, not even when that classroom has been outfitted with all the best technology that a committee of experts can imagine and acquire. Real education teaches us how to adapt and survive along an entire lifetime--and beyond. (One utility of studying history is that it reminds you of a time when people didn't think in terms of single generations, let alone market and election cycles measured in terms of a few months or years.) Real education does not teach us how to get and maintain jobs in a narrow market defined by scarcity and fragility. It teaches us how to maximize independence rather than servility. It costs a lot in terms of effort, and little in terms of cash (the reverse of many degrees offered by modern universities). It incentivizes process over completion, independence over employment, integrity over profit, and virtuous failure over depraved success.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Coming Age of Bust

If capitalism is the pursuit of monopoly, then I must be anti-capitalist. The question is how to do this. How to offer meaningful opposition to something so ubiquitous as the pursuit of zero-sum games in which winners embrace unlimited growth. This is not easy. I suspect it involves re-imagining what constitutes wealth (in ways that people who think like Peter Thiel will find ludicrous, perhaps dangerously ludicrous as they realize that my intent is to become less involved and less susceptible to involvement in business that will make them richer, on their own terms). The current, integrated economy needs to shrink, so that smaller, decentralized economies can become larger (but not too large, never again as large as the system we have now). The immediate outcome of this will be economic depression and conventional poverty ("austerity"), but I think the long-term prognosis is better for people who know how to live well with less than for people who think the solution to all economic woes is more of Keynesian stimulus (administered by public or private powers that be, via "free markets" rigged by monopolists on the Right or "fair markets" rigged by monopolists on the Left).

I do not think that there is such a thing as reforming Wall Street or Washington, if by that we mean making them serve their current populations in such a way that our conventional wealth increases without limits. I think the current system is running pretty close to optimal (as close to perfect as it gets without crashing prematurely), and that it is over-taxed (set to blow, with the real question being one of how to manage fallout rather than how to avoid crashing). Life exists, it seems to me, as a series of boom and bust, with the volatility occurring in less devastating fashion as society depends less on any one market (or regime) to serve its needs. We need more markets, not better versions of the ones we already have. We need more businesses, not better monopolies than the ones we already have. We need more (and smaller) governments, not a bigger or better version of the one we already have. In light of the economic depression that is clear on our horizon, we also need plans for living well with less (less wealth in the conventional sense: less growth, lower wages, fewer luxuries, weaker businesses, less taxes, weaker governments, etc.). The boom is over; now is the time of bust. If we manage the bust correctly, it might be a good time for us. We might come out on the other side alive, with a better appreciation for what it means to be wealthy in really straitened economic circumstances. We might have more control over our own destinies (in material terms) than our richer grandparents (who were able to out-source production to social conglomerates whose existence we can no longer support). Or we might be like those people on the side of the road out of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  That is not what I want.  I do not want to hang about as the hurricane approaches, praying that the crumbling levee holds.  I want to build a boat ahead of the storm, or pack whatever vehicle I have, and move out--with the idea of making new worlds, new societies with mores and expectations that match our new human environment.

Holy Mirth

Some thoughts inspired by the recent slaughter of French cartoonists responsible for the comic Charlie Hebdo, a slaughter perpetuated by Muslim extremists angered by the comic's crude mockery of Islam.

When I put myself in the public sphere, with an agenda that I want you to accept (or at least grapple with in some way), then I become fair game for ridicule.

When I was younger, I served an LDS (Mormon) mission to northern Spain. As a result of being out and about talking to people regarding religion, their own and mine (which I was available to offer those who wanted it), I was fair game for ridicule--and I was ridiculed. While this experience was not always pleasant, I think it was valuable--and I did my best (succeeding for the most part, I hope) to "roll with the punches" (which I knew that my position invited, and even required). I learned that people often use humor to facilitate friendly relations with outsiders whom they might otherwise hate (and perhaps physically injure, even to the point of death). I would much rather be mocked than beaten (let alone killed). But we do not all tolerate mockery the same way. I think we learn to deal with it better, as a population, when we must endure it without the means of an escalating retaliation: as a Mormon missionary, I had neither the friends, the time, nor the resources to plan a violent strike against the people who mocked me (some kindly, some viciously, all with some kind of moral justification that I respected and still respect). I might go home and cry, or get mad on the street and make some aggressive gestures, but there was no such thing as declaring war on society. (There really isn't for the jihadis, either. As a result of their activity in Paris, most of them are dead--right?--and more people will die. Even if society falls apart, the people of France are not going to rise up and convert to Islam en masse. Even if they did, they would promptly divide into separate Muslim factions--such as exist already in dar al-Islam--and commence hostilities with one another. If they were lucky, these hostilities would involve lots of mockery and little actual violence. If not, France becomes another Syria or Iraq.)

I think mockery is actually an important human art, a liberal art that people generally need more practice giving and receiving. The art of laughing at others without losing sight of one's own absurdity is really one of the most civilized--and civilizing--arts available to us. Too many people study how to laugh at others without learning to laugh at themselves. Too few among us are brave enough to face our own absurdity and laugh (instead of crying or becoming very angry and wanting to make someone else suffer because we appear weak, foolish, or stupid at some point--as we all do). Thus, when I teach humanities today in the classroom and tell my students, in a jesting tone, that I see my role as that of a professional clown, I am actually being serious. Seriously silly. I am teaching humanity to laugh, at itself and the world--to laugh and let the little things (a cartoon here, an insult there) go, without rancor.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Writing Books and Making Art

Some random thoughts inspired by this observation from Nassim Taleb (NNT): "For a book to survive at least decade, it should not be summarizable, and if summarized, no two independent summaries should be alike" (posted to Facebook on 9 January 2015).

The quality of longevity is one that tends to belong (it seems to me) to books whose relevance to society exists outside the realm of summaries. People don't write summaries of romance novels, especially not of romance novels that they really like. They re-read them (for the experience, not the "information" that Jane was hot and Dick lived up to his name). People often compose summaries of books that they wish they did not have to read (e.g. many of the summaries I wrote for my dissertation)--so that they can refer to an argument without having to care or know too much about it. This kind of summary exists to facilitate lack of experience or engagement (with an idea that one does not really want). Another kind of summary exists to help synthesize what one knows about a book one loves (and this kind of summary is typically idiosyncratic, in keeping with NNT's heuristic: my retelling of the Iliad is not yours).

The deadest dead-wood literature out there is academic books like one I am currently reading on Herakles. It contains much valuable information, presented in such a fashion as to erase any valuable idiosyncratic perspective from the author (who speaks not for herself but for "the field" and writes not a monograph but an extended encyclopedia entry that might as well have been composed by a machine--as maybe one day it will). She writes summaries of her argument at the end of each chapter (like a bad dissertation), and makes each sentence with as little care as needed to convey the essential information (which is the only thing keeping my nose in the book, long enough to write my own summary and return it with hope that I never need to check it out again--not because the author is not a fascinating person, but because she barely exists as a meaningful voice in this book).

Why does an author write such a book as this? I don't know. I suspect that the academic culture ("one must write a book to get tenure ... and/or other nice things like reputation") is to blame. Of course we need people writing books (and making music, painting, building, designing, dreaming, etc.). But not all art is created equal. Most of it, in fact, is shit.

The really great art does more than merely convey information: it conveys what pseudo-Longinus (delightfully anonymous, as most literary critics should be) calls "the sublime" (an insight into the human condition that is at once universal, recognizable to a large population, and particular, arising from conscious awareness of human particularity, the individual perspective of a thoughtful author). Few works of art achieve this, and that is well: if it were easy, we would all do it, all the time. The pernicious aspect of cultures like the academic is their tendency to over-value production for its own sake, as though we might atone for failing to become the next Mozart by writing a bunch of shitty cantatas (or whatever) instead of taking whatever time we need to produce the best work of which we, particularly, are capable. I do not write music to become Mozart. I do not write books to become Nietzsche (though that is much more likely for me than becoming Mozart). I do not wrestle to become Cael Sanderson (or Alexander Karelin). I do not paint to become Picasso. I do what I do, I make whatever art I make, to express who I am--a quality and experience unique to me. If I never develop that quality, if I am so busy accumulating a curriculum vitae to impress tenure committees that I neglect my muse, then my work will only ever be shit. The only people who read academic shit, in my experience, are academics, and we mostly do it holding our noses (especially if we love literature). We grit our teeth and "shit out another book every year" (as one of my best profs in grad school said of a prolific scholar in my field) because that is how one obtains academic laurels--but these pitiful rewards (such as they are) are not really κλέος ἄφθιτον, not even when history conspires to make them endure for centuries (as the garrulous farrago of disjointed thought composed by Athenaeus of Naucratis, zum Beispiel). They are means to some end, not any end in themselves. Their significance to human experience is remote, and a better work might easily replace them (if only by offering a really good summary--one that keeps all the information artists want and omits the shitty facade).