Friday, February 15, 2008

Exactly a year, as if it matters

"I take my last drink on September 11, 2002 - exactly a year after so many things kicked off..." -- Tania Glyde

The dull aphorism of the Pseud's Corner, as often, illuminates the central tendency of humanity to be most obedient to pointless customs and desires.
We make a fetish out of marking boundaries of time for important events. Birthdays are recorded and celebrated, anniversaries remembered, and minutes of silence observed. It is as if something has not happened unless we make a point to remember it regularly.
In one way this is entirely arbitrary and terrifying in its lack of spontaneity. It is almost as if what has happened must keep happening over and over for it to have happened at all. Of course, in many more ways it is understandable and enjoyable for us to feel so constrained by the demands of time - it does give us something to do, it does sponsor a collective memory, it is how we want to work.
Something is also demonstrated about the way we live. If we did not mark these occasions so readily, what would we have? The idea of "carpe diem" is a very extreme way of marking our lives, each day a line in the sand with "one day closer to death" on it. We are counting down, in our imagination, our closeness to death. And this is what will cause us to act thoughtfully and consciously, according to its adherents.

Just imagine how amorphic time would become without these little signposts of here, now, and then. Weekends and weekdays, if dissolved, along with all other such markers, we would grope blindly not knowing why to act on anything but immediate concerns. To get rid of our thin attachments to history through regular observations of time would be to destroy our link to anything, maybe we quite literally have to invent the past in the present to recognise it at all. In truth, I do not think motivation is in any way possible without this human notion of time running out, of (in the most mundane way possible) deadlines and cut-off points. We are only able to do anything when we set ourselves limits, and as we are so poor at that most individuals simply react only to the limits set for them by the outside world.

The grim pleasures of external control beckon, but we submit willingly, because in an of ourselves we recognise we can do so little.

Monday, August 27, 2007

"Back, you sex-obsessed drug-peddler, back I say."

From the Guardian:
Ever since school, Neil Boorman has been obsessed with the right labels - the shoes, the tops, the mobile phone... They became his identity. If he burned the lot in one grand gesture, would he be cured?

This salacious little tidbit, nestling beneath the cleverly double-meaning title, "Name Dropper", sums up the piece so much I would like you to refrain from actually clicking on the link to read it. I only included it out of completeness, and deference to the possibility that, otherwise, the Guardian legal team might hire a sniffer dog to lick my sensitive spleen.
To recap the tidbit in even more tiddly-bitty form: Neil Boorman. Label obsessed. Identified himself with label. Burned it all. Good on him?
I would like to briefly examine why so many people express antipathy, or even open disgust, at his actions, and offer my own understanding of his sad pathology. Shopping as a means to buy status, to buy self, is a horrible idea and we should all be terrified to think that it may happen. Perhaps trying to illuminate this case could help us find out more.

Let's start from the beginning - why did he do it?
"As a former editor of youth lifestyle magazines, I had caught a glimpse of the inner workings of advertising and marketing, and found some practices distasteful. Furthermore, I felt rather cheap that I had used my position to champion these brands, almost as if they were gods. So in order to cleanse this addiction and highlight some concerns surrounding advertising and consumerism, I vowed to burn all my stuff and start again, brand free."
Let's go further back, like Freud on cocaine: At junior school, I tried to make friends with the popular kids, only to be ridiculed for the lack of stripes on my trainers. In the absence of parents who smacked him with a Faberge egg for crapping on the seat of a Rolls Royce while on a marathon journey to Blackpool, while he wore family heirlooms handed down from the personal wardrobe of Sir Walter Raleigh, this will do to tame the wild beast that is Sigmund's pharmaceutically-fuelled id. Back, you sex-obsessed drug-peddler, back I say.
Here we have it: addicted to brands, champion of said brands as 'a lifestyle', now against consumerism, ridiculed as a kid for not wearing the right trainers.

Now, why is he addicted to brands?
"Being the gullible fool that I am, I believed in the promises that these brands made to me; that I would be more attractive, more successful, more happy for buying their stuff."

Finally, why burn his expensive labeled stuff?
"To the casual observer, burning £20,000 worth of expensive designer gear to cinders in a central London park might not seem like the wisest of actions. For lifestyle journalist Neil Boorman, this ritualistic, highly public destruction of his worldly possessions was a pivotal moment, one that formed the jump-off for his first book, Bonfire of the Brands. ‘I realised that not just my professional life, but my personal life as well was completely dominated by brands,’ Boorman explains. ‘I think I had some kind of weird disorder, which I call “obsession branding disorder”. I had to rip it up and start again.’"

This is a man who self-identifies as a brandaddict, progresses to be a brandpusher, and then burns the past to make himself anew as a brand new man. Sorry, couldn't resist.
Here is the news-friendly story - brand-whore helps brands take over the 'lifestyles' of the young, sees the error of his ways, and repents publicly to teach us all a lesson. Thanks, Neil!
And then writes a book. Er, great.
And then gets a career out of it. Hmm... wait a minute!

Let us try to steer a course between sober analysis and jealousy. We can't simply object to this as a case of Neil 're-branding' himself as an anti-brand crusader, using all he has learnt simultaneously against his old 'lifestyle' and for a new (and probably much improved) one, although it is tempting. It behooves us to look again at the evidence.

Let us, again, start from the beginning - why did he do it?
Well, when he said that he wanted to fit in with cool kids with labeled clothes, he was omitting part of the truth. In the Guardian article, he abandons his sister at a school disco: "I'll never forget the look of disappointment she gave me as I abandoned her in the disco for my friends. All evening, I could feel her watching me as I joined in the bullying and taunts my friends gave the unfortunate kids with 'square' clothes."
This is not just about being cool, it is about being accepted by the bullies and finding some defence from their cruel jibes. He is not just finding acceptance from the right clothes, but status as a kid who is over and above other kids, who is superior, who can laugh at them for their 'Oxfam' shoes. To me, this is a major difference from what he states elsewhere. This sin of omission is not just about minor detail, adding in the evidence reconstructs the whole reasoning for being brand obsessed.
Now, when Neil says "I believed in the promises that these brands made to me; that I would be more attractive, more successful, more happy..." I am not sure that it is really the marketing that makes him believe this. It is his own weakness, which was evident at an early age and succumbed to at an early age - he readily took on the identity of the aggressors in order to consciously side with them, and against the 'squares', including his own sister. It was not an ad that made him buy cool trainers, it was dickheads in a playground that laughed at him for not spending his parents' money on shit.

Now, why is he really addicted to brands?
"By the time I reached my 20s, the power to gain acceptance, and in turn grant acceptance to others, had begun to preoccupy my adult life. It's not unreasonable to say that my own sense of self-worth now depended on maintaining and exerting this power... one particular brand has remained a permanent fixture throughout my life: Adidas, a German sportswear company that has been the unofficial clothing brand of black American music since the early 70s."
He still wishes to maintain a bully-like position at the top of the pecking order, gaining and also granting the badge of identity to an elite club to others. That he chooses to do this through the clothing brand of ' black American music since the early 70s' just highlights the idiocy. Let's look rich and filled with status by ghetto-styling. Let us mimic people who come from a far less privileged background. Doesn't that just show how rich and clever we are? Afterwards let's drink champagne while eating fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, what?
It is also evident that he has problems in other areas: "at the age of 23, I realised that I had developed a problem with alcohol." Whether this is because of an 'addictive personality' - which I do not think exists - or because of a pervading sense of futility in his life (it certainly comes across, Neil!), he is not just 'addicted' to brands. He is, in general, unable to fill his life up with anything but over-consumption. He has not tried to buttress his status and identity with brands, he has fully accepted that brands become his whole identity because he has never tried to be anything else. Brands have not ruined him, in my reading of the scant evidence I have, he has chosen to identify wholly with a branded 'lifestyle' in order to avoid being anybody.
Harsh? Perhaps, but then again I'm just reacting to an article I read in a newspaper, it's not like I've known him for 20 years and am now selling a kiss-and-tell story to the Sun. So get off my back, will you, I have Freud caged up under my stairs and he's hungry for some psychoanalysin'.

Finally, and really finally, why burn his expensive labeled stuff?
Neil obviously felt that the brands were preying on him, getting in the way of himself expressing whatever he was authentically - that he had a disorder that the brand-makers themselves intensified.
I do not think so.
It is not the brands that are the problem. Who really gives a crap, as Neil starts to, that toothpaste is labeled as so by Colgate, or a TV as so by Grundy, or a washing machine as so by Ariston? Sure, a world without these big names plastered everywhere would be better, but that does not mean that you shouldn't brush your teeth. It is simply that Neil has to rid himself of all this stuff, as if they corrupt him.
It is obvious that the brands have not corrupted him. At every step of this sad little journey, it is Neil himself who has had a terrible desire to set himself apart from other human beings and mock them for not exhalting in consumption. It is he who identified with the bullies and adopted their way of life. I am quite sure that if the bullies had discriminated against others based on race or sexuality rather than purchases, Neil would never have become so hopelessly Adidas-obsessed.
No, Neil is not addicted to brands, he is addicted to feeling superior - and through purchasing expensive items is way he has learned to be superior. "Adidas" is not his lifestyle, quite obviously he has not emulated the existence of a 1970s black rapper living in an American slum. His lifestyle is, actually, "I wear Adidas, I spend lots of money on this, and you don't". He never believed in "the promises that these brands made to me; that I would be more attractive [etc.]" - he only believed that this was what brands were supposed to mean. He only ever believed that he was setting himself apart from other people, becoming an authority in his area and trying to find people that he could use this against.

Many people chide Neil for creating a public display of destroying this stuff. Not only does he turn his back on the past and commit to doing better, he also cannily recreates himself as a no-brand guru - a living brand for a post-brand and 'ethical consumer' society.
If he had simply given his crap into Oxfam, he would not have had the opportunity to say, "look at me! I am, in a totally new and now authentic way, better than most people!" If I am in a small way right (and I do not expect to be even that, I'm just leveling my own prejudices and experiences against a man I have never met and will almost certainly never meet), if I am in a small way right, then Neil feels quite a lot like he did before his bonfire. He feels wholly and undoubtedly better than other people, for they do not act in the way that he does. Plus, he makes dosh telling them all about it!


Thursday, August 23, 2007

"They will consciously waste their own time"

It is hard to explain why, but I take an interest in general gaming discussions online. It is probably because I am still, at heart, a nerd.
However, my engagement with this world is basically acerbic, as I have gone from being in thrall to electronic entertainment as a teenager, to an adult who views such overuse as pointless. Therefore the tone of my contribution to the gaming world has gone from fawning (e.g. sending in hints and cheats to Amiga Power), to questioning (e.g. interrogating somebody as to why "there's no point limiting yourself to one console for the sake of it", as one seems to be perfectly enough).

One thing I've noted is that the XBox 360 awards gamers with a 'gamer score' which is posted online. This score is viewed on a homepage that is set up for you when you go online with the console, and becomes something of a bragging feature between owners. To quote one 'obsessed' games reviewer:
"So back to my confession. I only bought my own Xbox 360 a few months ago and I've been wasting time with my baby son that I should have spent gaming. But whatever the excuse, admitting you have a low Gamerscore feels like admitting you have a low IQ. Again, brilliant thinking from Microsoft - we're shamed into buying games."

In fact, owners of the console are playing games that are rubbish just to score easy points: "I feel dirty. Last night I spent an hour of valuable gaming time playing the godawful Fusion Frenzy 2 on Xbox 360. Why? Yup, you've guessed it - easy gamerpoints" starts the introduction to an article. A comment on the previously cited article adds that "I was sent the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game at work, and I've already got a couple of hundred points just for completing the first four levels. It's pretty rubbish, but I'm compelled to complete it, partly because it'll be the first time I've ever got 1,000 points from a game".

Now we live in a world where, sneakily, we attempt to inflate a meaningless score to overtake the meaningless score of others by gritting our teeth and enduring a paid-for experience that rewards us in no way except to inflate that meaningless score. Will there be any consequences?
I am a psychologist. I am interested in educational psychology. It has long been common in classrooms, especially for younger children, to award tolerable behaviour with golden stars and so on. In fact, a similar system is often used in prisons. It is very basic behavioural psychology - reward the behaviours you want to see so that they are repeated. Does it work in classrooms or prisons? And will it work in the living room, late at night, playing yet another shoddy sequel?

When talking about motivation, there is a handy distinction between the intrinsic and the extrinsic. I am intrinsically motivated to relax in the bath at the end of a long week - it is quite simply what I want to do for my own reasons, and I enjoy it. However, I am extrinsically motivated to take a cold shower before work when it happens that there is no hot water - for if I do not clean myself I will smell and be ridiculed.
Therein lies the difference between the two kinds of motivation. Intrinsic motivation is a factor inside of you that makes you act. Extrinsic motivation is a factor outside of you, either punishment or reward from another agent.
It is obvious that packets of cigarettes, gold stars, or 'gamerpoints' are extrinsic motivators. So, what happens when you rely heavily on rewards to make people (whether pupils, prisoners, or pad-pounding-playas) do something?

The answer is that extrinsic motivation leads to a lack of interest. Lepper et al. (1973) observed nursery children drawing, and picked out those that enjoyed it. These children were split into three groups:
  • Group 1 was told to expect a reward for drawing, and rewarded
  • Group 2 was not told to expect a reward, but was rewarded
  • Group 3 was not told to expect a reward, and was not rewarded

After all this, the children were allowed to play some more, and were observed. Group 1 spent less time on drawing than the two other groups, because when extrinsic motivators are taken away, there is no longer a reason to repeat the behaviours. The children no longer bothered drawing, as drawing had become a way to receive reward, and without the reward seemed pointless.

No doubt most game playing is based on intrinsic motivation. The addition of these 'gamerpoints' adds more extrinsic motivation to the mix, and may be changing the play habits of some Xbox 360 owners. Are gamers no longer playing a game when all the points have been milked out of it, tossing it aside in order to start up a new fetch quest for a high score? Do Xbox 360 owners feel less motivated to play games on other systems, as they are forgetting why it might be enjoyable to play a game which does not reward you with such achievement recognition?

Or is the whole thing just an excellent way for Microsoft to show us that there are plenty of dire games that many gamers will still play, as long as they are given a thin 'achievement' excuse to do so? Psychologists should observe closely: people can be powered so little by intrinsic motivation that, in the absence of anything in particular to do, they will consciously waste their own time.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Adopt a porpoise: Does boredom spring from 'the illusory happiness called success'?

"But nothing lasts long in this world. Even joy grows less lively the next minute. And a minute later, again, it weakens further, until it is swallowed up by a prosaic state of mind, even as the ripple from a pebble's impact becomes merges with the smooth surface of the water. So Kovalev relapsed into thought again. For by now he had realized that even yet the affair was not wholly ended, seeing that, though retrieved, the nose needed to be put back on his face, where it belonged." -- Gogol, 'The Nose'.

Gogol's short story can be said to mean all sorts of things, 'cos it's that good that you effortlessly read what you want into it. I would like, though, to stress - as I have done by selecting the paragraph above - what Gogol is saying about the 'hedonistic treadmill'. Simply put, get what you want and you will want something else in short order. Had your Big Mac? Time for a shake, my fat little friend! Enjoying Die Hard '4.0'? Perhaps you should get a boxset of all four films on DVD! And then a poster! And then an official 'yip-ee-ki-ay' mug and toothbrush combo set!
In this manner, poor Kovalev is joyous upon finding that his nose has returned to him. It is the fulfillment of all his dreams, as having seen his nose cavort about town and holding a higher rank than him, he has become rather subdued. Well, the fulfillment of all of them except having the nose back on his face. And, a perspicacious reader may look beyond the happy ending of the tale to consider that, post-nose reattachment, Major Kovalev may yet find another dream to chase after, fantasy to fulfill, or even another nose to attach. A collection of 'em, after all, offers far more facial security than just one.
Perhaps boredom is related to this treadmill - a feeling that inexorably overwhelms us just as we think we are escaped from it, simply because we are always driven to look forward to having more, rather than looking behind to what already have. Boredom is of much importance to me, as I work with teenagers. If it were a substance that could be collected and sold, I would be rich, simply by mopping up the thick miasma left behind by disaffected teens. I see it everywhere, it clogs my pores, it worries me.
You should, I wager, be worried about boredom too. To give a slightly silly, but all the more terrifying for it example, yobbishness in young folk is often blamed on boredom. In what I must admit is the most concrete proof of 'political correctness gone mad' (yes, I am going Tory in my old age, what?), when there is a conflagration of teenage spite against society - endemic and petty vandalism, scaring old people, smelling of BO, drinking in the streets and leering at everything - a social worker can always be found to declare in exactly the same style they would declare that the earth is indefatigably round that they act like this 'because they have nothing to do'. Boredom is, apparently, motivating senselessly destructive behaviour. I have nothing to do, thinks hoodie number one, so I will do something quaintly abominable and get in the Daily Mirror.

I am not sure that I believe this. I am not sure to what extent boredom can even exist in the way that we are describing it. Let me explain.

What do we take it to mean when somebody says "I am bored"? Well, the most common reply to a 'bored' youngster from their parent or otherwise guardian is "why don't you..." This phrase, often ending in "go outside / paint the shed / clean the toilet" is not really a question, although it seems to be. It is usually a terribly backfiring attempt to motivate a self-consciously bored person to do what you want them to - as if boredom is a lack of things to do to be filled up by activities. Yet I do not think that this is the case.
The world is so crammed with activities to be getting on with that it is quite simply irrational to say "I have nothing to do: ergo I am bored". You might as well say "I have nothing to wear: ergo I am the emperor in The Emperor's New Clothes". There is neither a sufficient nor necessary relationship between these statements. Somebody who has 'nothing to do' could, at that moment, within a ten foot radius discover so many activities to be getting on with that they could occupy themselves for the rest of the day. ('What if you're in the desert?' clever readers interject unreasonably. Well, I reply, count sand in order to timekeep until your perhaps inevitable death).
Think of an animal. Are they bored? They find food, they may store food, they may build or maintain a living place, they clean themselves, they may interact socially, they find a mate, they mate. An animal never seems bored. They are always working towards the next potential payday, engaging in behaviours that fulfill drives and instincts, and then working on fulfilling the next one. Is boredom really possible? Well, there are exceptions, and we will consider one later.

So, boredom is quite simply not lacking things to do, even though popularly this is how we consider it.

Let me start bringing in some experts. Lars Svendsen has written a very well received philosophical essay on boredom (which I have not read, but obviously I don't need to talk about it. Yes, I am that deluded). He described two kinds of boredom, 'situational' and 'existential'.
Situational boredom makes excellent sense. When you are doing something that seems to be fruitless, you become bored. When it is too exhausting of inputs and produces too little output, you are bored. When it is repetitive, you are bored. Boredom, in this sense, can almost be seen as a survival mechanism, like the pain response. This is too easy for me, I can do better. It can spur you on to greater things, motivate you to change your behaviours. Situational boredom is not when you have nothing to do, it is when what you are doing is rubbish. This is one half of the meaning of Lars' statement that boredom "doesn't really have any qualities" except for the general "a lack of personal meaning". Boredom can keep you from participating in that which you find meaningless, and maybe cause you to start looking for more meaningful form of expression. Thank you, Apathy!
Existential boredom is the aspect that might worry us. It is when the world offers nothing to us, and our existence seems necessarily impoverished. One perspective would be something like: Nothing enriches me, no experience is improving to my self; everything is limited, transitory, and vain.
To turn to Wikipedia (sorry), some psychologist has said the boredom is “an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity”. This covers, I reckon situational boredom. Existential boredom is "when we are simply unable, for no apparent reason, to maintain engagement in any activity or spectacle", from the same article.

We can see, then, that there are two forms of boredom. And we must cast aside one to embrace the other, and wrestle with it. The boredom we should seriously consider is not going to be solved by saying "well, go do something else, then". Existential boredom is, potentially, a life-long condition that cripples the individual so totally that vague attributions of 'depression' may seem like gnats in the face of it. It is like a self that desires negation to such an extent it wants to be a vacuum and suck everything in, destroying everything through a process of negative judgements. Or, in other words, it's really bad.
I am quite sure that many of my students cultivate this boredom preciously, as if it is a kind of lifestyle. It is necessary to be bored by the world in this fashion. You are simultaneously above everything and yet totally apart from it. The world is shit and you know it, and you gaze imperiously down like a cloud would stare at a barren desert. Yes, this sounds stupid - if you are so bored, surely this is a very negative state and you would come out from it? Let me explain again that boredom is easy to defeat. Boredom is inside you, it is how you relate to the world that is the problem - boredom is at the interface between you and the world (in your perceptions). It would be easy to help somebody to overcome boredom through retraining about what is and is not important, and establishing a hierarchy of interest. The truly bored person has a very flat level of interest, averaging at zero for everything. This boredom must be, in some way, a desired affectation to exist, otherwise it would be discarded. (Aside: yes, I am aware that many people believe depression and boredom to be linked. Let me just say that I am discussing boredom as apart from depression, as I am sure that it can be found in this form quite commonly.)

Where does this desire to be bored, and I am quite convinced that it does exist, come from?
Freeman (1991) studied 70 children registered as gifted by their parents - which admittedly makes them an unusual sample. Their intelligence led them to boredom and frustration, as the world was simply not giving them enough stimulation. It is obvious that boredom is often linked with frustration - perhaps terminal boredom is simply when you become so frustrated that you want to block the whole world out? Then again, these children may just have been reacting against parents who were rather pushy.
Perhaps we should first disabuse ourselves of the notion, if we have it, that the world is a grand, free, democratic place where everything is possible as long as we try. If there is one thing I would like to do, it would be to strip people of this asinine optimism, even if it did leave them open to long and cold reappraisals of themselves that eventually led to total and utter despair. C'est la vie.
The limits of average human imagination are, in my eyes, rather apparent, so we cannot simply rely on human ingenuity and spirit to solve all our problems - otherwise why do we still have so many? We may, as Wilde said, be sitting in the gutter but looking at the stars, yet that does not mean that the street sweeper shall refrain from obliviously destroying our little collections of trash that we have been erecting. Yes, the sad truth is that things are not perfect.
The problem of modern boredom is, to me, very quickly encapsulated by Victor Frankl, who said "Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for". Let me go into this further.
Erich Fromm, in his 'Escape From Freedom', describes how the human world changed utterly over the period of a few centuries. From a much more proscribed feudal Europe, where existence was fettered and goals set for you by society, to a modern world which became progressively more and more free. Free from, however, not free to. We have lost the constraining but equally defining customs of the past, and now are left with the need to define ourselves. And this is not easy. As Fromm says, "The right to express our thoughts means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own". He brilliantly describes American life at the time as a patchwork of facts, put together by newsreels and newspapers: "In the name of 'freedom' life loses all its structure; it is composed of many little pieces, each separate from the other and lacking any sense as a whole". In a world where there is no whole, only atomised separateness, how can we build a self? Similarly we will become a collection of disparate facts, behaviours, activities and hobbies - perhaps only held together by the fake unity of a 'lifestyle' - and seek pleasure in conformity. For that is what Fromm says we turn to in order to escape freedom from, we chain ourselves to popular opinion and slavishly follow what is the norm.

If you cursorily read about boredom on the internet, you will find a number of books have been written on the subject quite recently (again, I haven't read any). A common conclusion is that society produces boredom. A sociological Marxist reading would mostly pin the blame on conscious control by those in power to keep us subservient. This makes exciting Invasion of the Body Snatchers sci-fi narratives possible, but is too breathlessly tense and, let's face it, clever to stand up to the reality of our uncontrolled and opportunistic political climate. I agree with Fromm - when you fulfill material desires more and more as we have unprecedentedly been able to do using the glorious machinery of capitalism, mass humanity is given huge amount of time to devote to whatever they would like to. Yet, at the same time, capitalism has taken away many of the things we would have previously spent time on, such as agriculture, religion, community. Astonishingly, the answer has been to acquire more, even though we have plenty. My students, although mostly from high-earning families, who have their needs fulfilled, are full of desire to buy yet more stuff. Almost all of them regularly spend the money they earn in part-time employment on things they do not need, and when asked will quite happily acknowledge that, in some respects, it is wasteful. Yet the process of buying is so fun that they will continue to buy things, forgetting that past the buzz of the checkout bing it becomes a hollow victory for most purchases.
Also, we subscribe to the idea of leisure. We feel as if we are so harassed by economic life that we want to take 'time out' to 'relax' - a process of doing very little that sounds to me like the most fertile ground for boredom possible. We are making states of boredom, of intellectual inactivity through aimless leisure-pursuit or purchase, central to our idea of self-betterment. I think that we are literally aiming to be bored, by achieving a state where we do not have to do anything, and doing something is suspect.

Fromm's answer to this is sponte: Latin ofr "of one's free will". He wants us all to be spontaneous, expressing ourselves endlessly, constantly, always producing what is original to us (and perhaps, occasionally, the outside world), living in and of ourselves and just being who we are. This process leads to an unstoppable expansion of the self, according to him, you cannot be yourself honestly without loving others and growing through your learning from the outside world. To quote: "man misses the only satisfaction that can give him real happiness - the experience of the activity of the present moment - and chases after a phantom that leaves him dissatisfied as soon as he believes he has caught it - the illusory happiness called success".
To sum it all up, he helpfully truisms that "there is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself". And this is where I must explain my dubiousity.

I am not so hot on Fromm's answer to the problems which he quite clearly delineates. He is a humanist, and I am not so faithful, as he seems to be, that the spontaneous nature of the human is always so positive. I do not see why spontaneity could not be, in many people, an awful thing worthy of suppression by outside forces. Also, I do not think that it is so easy to be-who-you-are. Ask somebody to "be spontaneous" and the last thing they will do will be spontaneous. Instead their response will be bluntly critical, or forcefully contrived, or something otherwise not spontaneous at all. Perhaps we must accept that human self is so bound up in control by the outside world that just to be somebody is to be directly or indirectly caused and affected by everything around us, especially human-invented meanings of the self.
Fromm rails against the idea that we should be content to be carefully organised individuals participating in an already-existing structure. I am similarly dubious that we can be fully free and individuals spontaneously creating a structure that benefits us all so mutually.
If 'the act of living' is the meaning of life, and we are all alive, then Fromm must end up having to point at people who are alive - but not in the 'right way' - and say "that's not true living". This is tricky, to me, very tricky; simply endlessly disputable.

What is the answer, then, to a world which seem to rush headlong into boredom by prizing what is always going to be boring? Let me return to the idea that being very intelligent might lead to frustration and boredom. Do intelligent people tend to do amazing things - is intelligence enough to make original people who change the world?
Unsurprisingly, no: Subotnik et al. (1993), studied 210 adults who previously attended a New York school for high IQ kids (average IQ of group, 157). They did not generally achieve much of note, going for modest success in a profession instead.
Furthermore, above an IQ level of 120 (which 9% of the population achieves) original achievements are determined by personality or motivation (Martyn Long, Psychology of Education). Intelligent people are ten-a-penny, yet world-leaders are not. What is this magic factor that produces people who do something, who slip between the cracks of normality and shake things up? What is meant by 'determined by personality or motivation'?

To put it simply, some people adopt a purpose.

I do not think that, at this moment, anything terrifies me more. Purpose can be an alien thing, pushed on you from outside. A child could be raised to perform terrorist acts because of another's purpose being pressed into them, like a seal into wax. Purpose can lead you blindly into fresh hells of your own devising. Purpose can destroy you, as it is a strong motivation that may know no reason.
Yet, it is the one thing that keeps us moving, that totally dispells boredom. When we want to do something.
The problem is simple - we have somehow made a world in which purpose is alien. Drives have been reined in and subsumed to such an extent in order to power normal, conformist existence that there is nothing left of us. We want so little, apart from what the world has designated for us, that our aims are literally mundane ('of the world'). We commonly think that humanity is somehow spiritually able to 'break the mould', 'push the limits', yet we do not do this ourselves. We are seduced by the normal so strongly we think it extraordinary, and pursue it relentlessly, forever tiring of our immediate gains and going for more.

Boredom makes us think, "I don't want to do anything". Perhaps we should be thinking more, "what is it that I must do?"

Saturday, May 26, 2007

"It certainly sounds clever enough to be true."

Let us surmise that "There are none more hungry than those who have too much to eat". It certainly sounds clever enough to be true.

Let me extend this idea into a new area. While their concept seems admirable, the reality of the use of human rights is depressing. Those who glory in their ownership of human rights seem to be those in the least need of them - which seems to me about as evident as my first statement. I see quite a link between the incessant consumption of unneeded food, and the constant use of human rights to benefit oneself. It seems to me that human rights can also be 'consumed' - for if one person uses them too strenuously, it seems to deprive their use from others. This notion helps me to understand why we who are privileged are full to bursting of human rights, while they are so invisible elsewhere.

The whole point of human rights is to produce equality across all humans, without that aim they are worse than useless. (With that aim they at least can be no worse than useless, I hope, otherwise to expurgate the idea we will presumably need equal terror and bloodshed to that which installed it in our societies). But their current use seems to be to create equality across those who need it least, a parity of privilege which all the privileged can exult in. This is a terrifying state of affairs. If we are all equal to be equally well off, as long as we are well off already, we are not creating any idea of human rights. We are merely creating an excuse for our larders to be as packed as our stomachs.

The biggest sign of human rights being tailored to suit us most perfectly is the equal and opposite notion of 'responsibilities'. If we are to have rights, we are told, we must also 'fulfill our responsibilities'.

On the fact of it, this sounds quite charming. Why not deny the manna of full humanity to those who cannot follow the rules? Why not make this a club by membership only?

However, it must be noted that those who are making the rules are genetically engineering 'human rights'. They are in power of them. And who is so human that they can negotiate this phantom concept to the ill of all others?

If we cannot distribute human rights equally, then we should abolish them. I do not see why anybody is less human than anybody else, and if we persist in pretending that they are, we should forfeit any such 'rights' we have imagined.

At the back of my mind is the idea that, if human rights were ubiquitous, they would not matter anymore. We would not have to invent them, to reify them, to bring them up an obstacle between humans. We would just act for each person as a means rather than an end, and not have to parcel them up in this strange legal formulation. The phantom would disappear. It is clearly an idiosyncrasy to demand natural and innate rights for all people, to suppose them with force and vigour, if they are indeed natural and innate. If they already exist then they do not even need to be mentioned - for they are there. If they do not exist then we cannot will them into existence.

So, either we all have human rights (and they are not worthy of mention). Or some have them (and are therefore more equal than others). In either case, stop being so greedy to take what you have, but have no need for.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Jaques Derrida on Love and Being

The above video will help express the ideas I have been writing about in a more accessible way for the reader. It is subtly poignant and well worth watching.

There are four points that I would like to comment on:

- Derrida's hesistation.
- The distinction between 'the who and the what'.
- The death of love. (This will be discussed in a subsequent post)
- The philosophical note on ontology.

Derrida cannot speak of love in generalities. Our knowledge does not stretch this far. In my last post I remarked that "The process of love itself is unthinkable"; likewise, Derrida has "an empty head on love in general". He even evades framing love in terms of the history of philosophy - is he meant to parrot or list what others have said, or tie them together with a remark on what they all have in common, what is identical to each? The former Derrida calls cliche; the latter presupposes a position on love in general, concerning which he has "nothing to say".

Nonetheless, Derrida succeeds in talking about love, not in a generality, but in a specific problematic that love negotiates: The difference between the who and the what. Derrida locates these in terms of an essential singularity - who someone is, and non-essential qualities - what comprises that person. Though Derrida is speaking in the third person (hence 'qualities'), we can nonetheless relate this distinction to the problem of forces and coherent selves. Do we love someone because they are 'the person that they are', or because joy is brought us by those things that constitute them, their behaviour, and their relation to us?

How do we think about the things that make us love someone? Do we see them as prior to and separable from the subject, or do we see them as following from the subject (either 'at all', or 'significantly enough to account for what we love to the extent that we love it')? This is the place in which philosophical theorising comes into play - are we going to maintain that existence precedes essence (the subjectival), or will we side with Nietzsche's lightning flash? As Derrida rightly points out, the question of what it is for something to be (the ontological question) is primary.

Derrida's words: "The difference between the who and the what at the heart of love, separates the heart".

How do we understand 'the death of love'? It is this, more than anything, that determines whether we can give expression to love as a real force. Derrida remarks that whoever is in love, was in love, or begins to be in love gets caught up between the two ontological attitudes. To the extent that we love, therefore, reality is cleaved in two for us. It seems that on this view unrequited love necessarily leads to ressentiment. The heart becomes separated and torn, our feelings get discarded and our hopes get dashed to the pavement. Must we cast down those that we love and call them unworthy of it? Can we not save our love this cruel fate?

Saturday, February 24, 2007


My last few posts are linked: Love is a form of hubris that entails a loss of the self.

1) Love is not only something real but something radically real, something that changes us and makes us different to what we were. When we fall in love it is only ever for the first time, but love does not regress to some original dynamic - it creates afresh by bursting us open. It is a force that is precisely out of our control: Instead, we are placed eagerly in its hands. Love is a process of change that is always possible - 'we' cannot be 'beyond' love; love is a force that moves to the 'beyond' of 'us'.

2) We do not know and cannot know what love is. The process of love itself is unthinkable. We undergo this or that love, we can express it more or less, become more or less in love, but we cannot capture it within our concepts about ourselves - there can be no social history of love, nor any personal history that is permitted to say 'what it is'. What we can talk about is 'how it is' with us, which includes any talk about how it has been (we can recite our personal history of love to ourselves, dispassionately, but this shows our present constitution, our relative inability to be in love).

3) It is by a system of signs that we understand love. Our character is put under strain, and this is how we feel it - violent emotions disrupt and distort 'us'. We endure and then we break.

"Love is a gross exaggeration of the difference between one person and everybody else" - George Bernard Shaw

In this view, there are objective standards of differences between subjects that become in a sense inflamed and distorted when we fall in love. When we are in love, our social determinations tend to tear apart, but from Shaw's point of view this is something to be understood in terms of social reality, with the message that we should bring love back down to earth.

I ask - why would we do this? For what purpose? It seems that social purpose has overriden love, that the self has been able to deal with the emotions it feels within the systems of meaning it already inhabits. But love is something that we temper, qualify and make useful precisely when we are not in love. When we are in love things stop making sense.

We ask ourselves: "What good is this love to me?" But it doesn't matter. It never mattered. The idea of self-sacrifice never starts to become important; the questions of what we lose and what we gain hang relative to a 'reality' that reality has already dissipated. We cannot trace shadows in a room full of light.

In love there are no conceptual participants other than those which become eternal, and real love knows no laws but its own:

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
That alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! It is an ever fixed mark,
That looks upon tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, though his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved."

-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

The reader might contend that this is idealistic; a standard romanticisation of love that doesn't fit the facts. But what facts do we attempt to make 'love' fit?

Since love happens immanently to a given subject, there is no equivocity involved, but only ebbs and flows of emotion as they swell up within us. Love gives expression to a return of difference (to use Deleuze's terms), which means that everything we think we know about love misses the point - that love returns as forever new feelings. Feeling something and trying to recontextualise it through the comparative history of people you have loved is to seek to chain love to similarity that stays within the idea of the self and does not go beyond it (i.e. does not speak of love at all).

For Deleuze, thinking is something that constantly pushes the boundaries of thought, and should not be assimilated via preformed images, since in this way the mind only reflects upon itself (albeit with certain intensities) - it sees its categories of recognition out in the world: Good morning Theaetetus. In the same way, if we are truly to begin to love, we must learn to love afresh, anew, for the first time. To see in expressions of love only promises made a thousand times before is to see our own emotional structures reflected back upon us, and by this means we put love in shackles. To learn to be in love is to be aware, when something connects, that it connects. This means emotional struggle and toil, as we begin to love with greater depth and subtlety of emotion. We struggle to be more in love because we begin to affirm that we are in love, and this is sufficient.

Let us take a case, and one that has become very dear to me - Spenser's Amoretti. Sonnet 30 of the Amoretti reads as follows (translated from the Middle English):

"MY love is like to ice, and I to fire;
how comes it then that this her cold so great
is not dissolved through my so hot desire,
but harder grows the more I her intreat?
Or how comes it that my exceeding heat
is not delayed by her heart frozen cold:
but that I burn much more in boiling sweat,
and feel my flames augmented manifold?
What more miraculous thing may be told
that fire which all things melts, should harden ice:
and ice which is congealed with senseless cold,
should kindle fire by wonderful device.
Such is the power of love in gentle mind,
that it can alter all the course of kind."

Love overrides all our assumed typologies, moral positions and 'lifestyle choices'. Knowing this to be the case, shouldn't we avoid love: isn't love something that is profoundly useless, that takes away the strengths we use to move through life, and that causes us harm? Shouldn't we resist love, and preserve notions of the self? Shouldn't we forgo the anarchy of becoming-what-we-will-be for the tidy management of reality as a list of social contracts? Isn't this the only way to survive?

No. This is death itself.

Love is not a contract that we enter into, nor can it ever be. Love that can be accepted given prearranged conditions is not love at all, since 1) to fall in love is to be changed, and 2) the idea of a change that does not change anything cannot be called a change. The sense of responsibility we feel toward each other is not engendered through a contract that one of us must propose and the other accept, as this is merely 'responsibility' in its abstract, legal formulation. Love does not obey the law, and in asking it to we leave the affirmation and expression of love behind, and with it our chance of truly connecting with someone, all for the sake of security. Why do we care about each other's feelings? Is it because we are obligated, or because we empathise? It must (for the love of life!) be because we make the attempt to understand.

Permit me to ask - if you, dear reader, were in love, and this love was not returned, would you expect the other person to treat you kindly and gently only because they felt an obligation to? Does their kind behaviour now bring you comfort? What of the thought that the other person might have, i.e. 'Well, I didn't ask for your feelings, so I don't have an obligation to deal with them'? I hope we would want to point out that the opposing circumstance, in which the feelings were asked for, is just as barren and bereft of life as the present one.