Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 3: Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard is one of those postmodernist philosophers that people can name but probably don’t know much about. He’s most famous for his work Simulacra and Simulation, in which he argues we’ve replaced everything real in our society by symbols (more on this later). If you’re thinking of the movie The Matrix, then you’ve understood. That movie gets misattributed to a lot of different philosophers, but the underlying concept is basically a fictionalization of Baudrillard’s ideas.

I thought we’d tackle his paper “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media” published in New Literary History, Vol 16, No 3. The paper appeared in 1985, and it tackles issues relevant to our current media environment. I thought it’d be interesting to see how it holds up now.

He begins with an observation about the media:

…they are what finally forbids response, what renders impossible any process of exchange (except in the shape of a simulation of a response, which is itself integrated into the process of emission, and that changes nothing in the unilaterality of communication).

In the 80’s, as well as traditional media today, this is certainly true. There’s no way to comment on or engage in a dialogue with the people presenting information on TV or radio or even podcasts or newspapers and blogs with closed comments. Traditionally, media gets to define the conversation, and when there is “response” to what they say, it’s still controlled by them, and they still distribute that response to you.

Baudrillard wants to frame this as a power imbalance. The media have a monopoly on information. When a response is allowed, the exchange of ideas becomes more balanced.

Baudrillard brings up the case of an opinion poll as an example to motivate the next part of the paper. He points out that this distribution of information is merely symbolic of the state of opinion. There is a complicated interaction where the information itself changes opinion, rendering itself obsolete. This type of distribution of information introduces uncertainty on many fronts:

We will never know if an advertisement or opinion poll has had a real influence on individual or collective wills—but we will never know either what would have happened if there had been no opinion poll or advertisement.

Here, I have to say this analysis is a bit dated. This statement was probably accurate in the 80’s, but with Google, and other analytic big data companies, tracking so much of our lives, we can be quite certain if certain advertisements or polls have caused some sort of influence on both individual and collective wills.

This point is mostly not important to the overall thesis of Baudrillard in the article, though. He goes on to make an astute observation that can cause a bit of anxiety if you dwell on it too much. We don’t have a good way to separate reality from the “simulative projection in the media.”

It’s a complicated way to say that we just can’t check a lot of things. If we see on the news that there was a minor earthquake in Japan, we believe it. But we weren’t there. All we get is the simulation of reality as provided by the news. Of course, there are other ways to check that fact by going into public seismic activity records, etc.

But there are other narratives and simulations that are much harder to check, and in any case, we are bombarded by so much information that we don’t have time to check it. We believe the narrative as presented. If we come across a competing narrative, we only become uncertain. It doesn’t actually clarify the situation (here we get back into Lyotard territory).

Baudrillard would later write a book-length analysis of this about the Gulf War (entitled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place) in which he claims that the American public only received propaganda about the war through the media. The war took place, but the simulated reality the public received did not accurately reflect the events that occurred. Moreover, there were pretty much no sources outside this propaganda to learn about the actual events.

We live in an age of hyperinformation, and the more we track how everything is changing, the worse our understanding gets. This isn’t Baudrillard’s wording, but I can see how this makes sense: we confuse noise for signal when we pay too close attention. We also get trapped in our own little information bubbles when we pay too close attention. “Hyperinformation” (his term) can lead to more uncertainty, not less.

I think we’ve come to a point where hyperinformation is at least somewhat good. Yes, for the reasons listed, it can be paralyzing if you want the truth. But at the same time, it means the truth might be out there to discover. We don’t only get the corporate media narrative now. There are independent reporters and journalists working hard to present viable alternatives. It isn’t hopeless to see through the noise now (as it was back in the 80’s).

Baudrillard says we can get out of the despair of all this by treating it like a “game of irresponsiblity, of ironic challenge, of sovereign lack of will, of secret ruse.” The media manipulates and the masses resist, or better yet, respond.

I’ll just reiterate that what Baudrillard identifies as the central problem here has been partially solved in modern day. The masses have twitter and facebook and comments sections and their own blogs and youtube channels. The masses have a way to speak back now. Unfortunately, this has opened up a whole new set of problems, and I wish Baudrillard were still around. He’d probably have some interesting things to say about it.

Now that I’ve been doing this Critical Postmodern Reading series, I’m coming to believe these postmodernists were maligned unjustly. I’m coming to believe we should keep two terms distinct. The “postmodernist philosopher” analyzes the issues of the postmodern condition. The “postmodern academic” utilizes the confusion brought on by the postmodern condition to push their own narrative.

It’s easy to look at the surface of Baudrillard and claim he’s some crackpot history denier that thinks there’s no such thing as objective reality so we all make our own truth.

But if you read him carefully, he seems to be saying some very important true things. He thinks there is an objective, true reality, and it’s dangerous that we all simulate different versions of it (i.e. we filter the news through an algorithm that tells us the world is how we think it is). The truth gets hijacked by narratives. He sees the monopoly the media has on these narratives as damaging and even simulating a false reality.

His writing doesn’t even slip into incomprehensible, postmodernist jargon to obscure the argument. I thought this article was illuminating despite and comprehensible. The only parts that don’t still feel applicable are where he didn’t predict how technology would go.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 2: Finishing Lyotard

Last time we looked at the introduction to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. That introduction already contained much of what gets fleshed out in the rest of the short book, so I’m going to mostly summarize stuff until we hit anything that requires serious critical thought.

The first chapter goes into how computers have changed the way we view knowledge. It was probably an excellent insight that required argument at the time. Now it’s obvious to everyone. Humans used to gain knowledge by reading books and talking to each other. It was a somewhat qualitative experience. The nature of knowledge has shifted with (big) data and machine learning. It’s very quantitative. It’s also a commodity to be bought and sold (think Facebook/Google).

It is a little creepy to understand Lyotard’s prescience. He basically predicts that multinational corporations will have the money to buy this data, and owning the data gives them real-world power. He predicts knowledge “circulation” in a similar way to money circulation.  Here’s a part of the prediction:

The reopening of the world market, a return to vigorous economic competition, the breakdown of the hegemony of American capitalism, the decline of the socialist alternative, a probable opening of the Chinese markets …

Other than the decline of the socialist alternative (which seems to have had a recent surge), Lyotard has a perfect prediction of how computerization of knowledge actually affected the world in the 40 years since he wrote this.

Chapter two reiterates the idea that scientific knowledge (i.e. the type discussed above) is different than, and in conflict with, “narrative” knowledge. There is also a legitimation “problem” in science. The community as a whole must choose gatekeepers seen as legitimate who decide what counts as scientific knowledge.

I’ve written about why I don’t see this as a problem like Lyotard does, but I’ll concede the point that there is a legitimation that happens, and it could be a problem if those gatekeepers change the narrative to influence what is thought of as true. There are even known instances of political biases making their way into schools of scientific thought (see my review of Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger).

Next Lyotard sets up the framework for thinking about this. He uses Wittgenstein’s “language game” concept. The rules of the game can never legitmate themselves. Even small modifications of the rules can greatly alter meaning. And lastly (I think this is where he differs from Wittgenstein), each speech act is an attempt to alter the rules. Since agreeing upon the current set of rules is a social contract, it is necessary to understand the “nature of social bonds.”

This part gets a little weird to me. He claims that classically society has been seen either as a unified whole or divided in two. The rules of the language games in a unified whole follow standard entropy (they get more complicated and chaotic and degenerate). The divided in two conception is classic Marxism (bourgeoisie/proletariat).

Even if it gets a bit on the mumbo-jumbo side through this part, I think his main point is summarized by this quote:

For it is impossible to know what the state of knowledge is—in other words, the problems its development and distribution are facing today—without knowing something of the society within which it is situated.

This doesn’t seem that controversial to me considering I’ve already admitted that certain powers can control the language and flow of knowledge. Being as generous as possible here, I think he’s just saying we have to know how many of these powers there are and who has the power and who legitimated that power before we can truly understand who’s forming these narratives and why.

In the postmodern world, we have a ton of different institutions all competing for their metanarrative to be heard. Society is more fractured than just the two divisions of the modern world. But each of these institutions also has a set of rules for their language games that constrains them.  For example, the language of prayer has a different set of rules from an academic discussion at a university.

Chapters 7-9 seem to me to be where the most confusion on both the part of Lyotard and the reader can occur. He dives into the concept of narrative truth and scientific truth. You can already feel Lyotard try to position scientific truth to be less valuable than it is and narrative truth more valuable.

Lyotard brings up the classic objections to verification and falsification (namely a variant on Hume’s Problem of Induction). How does one prove ones proof and evidence of a theory is true? How does one know the laws of nature are consistent across time and space? How can one say that a (scientific) theory is true merely because it cannot be falsified?

These were much more powerful objections in Lyotard’s time, but much of science now takes a Bayesian epistemology (even if they don’t admit to this terminology). We believe what is most probable, and we’re open to changing our minds if the evidence leads in that direction. I addressed this more fully a few years ago in my post: Does Bayesian Epistemology Suffer Foundational Problems?

… drawing a parallel between science and nonscientific (narrative) knowledge helps us understand, or at least sense, that the former’s existence is no more—and no less—necessary than the latter’s.

These sorts of statements are where things get tricky for me. I buy the argument that narrative knowledge is important. One can read James Baldwin and gain knowledge and empathy of a gay black man’s perspective that changes your life and the way you see the world. Or maybe you read Butler’s performative theory of gender and suddenly understand your own gender expression in a new way. Both of these types of narrative knowledge could even be argued to be a “necessary” and vital part of humanity.

I also agree science is a separate type of knowledge, but I also see science as clearly more necessary than narrative knowledge. If we lost all of James Baldwin’s writings tomorrow, it would be a tragedy. If we lost the polio vaccine tomorrow, it would be potentially catastrophic.

It’s too easy to philosophize science into this abstract pursuit and forget just how many aspects of your life it touches (your computer, the electricity in your house, the way you cook, the way you get your food, the way you clean yourself). Probably 80% of the developed world would literally die off in a few months if scientific knowledge disappeared.

I’ll reiterate that Lyotard thinks science is vastly important. He is in no way saying the problems of science are crippling. The above quote is more in raising narrative knowledge to the same importance of science than the devaluing of science (Lyotard might point to the disastrous consequences that happened as a result of convincing a nation of the narrative that the Aryan race is superior). For example, he says:

Today the problem of legitimation is no longer considered a failing of the language game of science. It would be more accurate to say that it has itself been legitimated as a problem, that is, as a heuristic driving force.

Anyway, getting back to the main point. Lyotard points out that problems of legitimating knowledge is essentially modern, and though we should be aware of the difficulties, we shouldn’t be too concerned with it. The postmodern problem is the grand delegitimation of various narratives (and one can’t help but hear Trump yell “Fake News” while reading this section of Lyotard).

Lyotard spends several sections developing a theory of how humans do science, and he develops the language of “performativity.” It all seems pretty accurate to me, and not really worth commenting on (i.e. it’s just a description). He goes into the issues Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem caused for positivists. He talks about the Bourbaki group. He talks about the seeming paradox of having to look for counterexamples while simultaneously trying to prove the statement to be true.

I’d say the most surprising thing is that he gets this stuff right. You often hear about postmodernists hijacking math/science to make their mumbo-jumbo sound more rigorous. He brings up Brownian motion and modeling discontinuous phenomena with differentiable functions to ease analysis and how the Koch curve has a non-whole number dimension. These were all explained without error and without claiming they imply things they don’t imply.

Lyotard wants to call these unintuitive and bizarre narratives about the world that come from weird scientific and mathematical facts “postmodern science.” Maybe it’s because we’ve had over forty more years to digest this, but I say: why bother? To me, this is the power of science. The best summary I can come up with is this:

Narrative knowledge must be convincing as a narrative; science is convincing despite the unconvincing narrative it suggests (think of the EPR paradox in quantum mechanics or even the germ theory of disease when it was first suggested).

I know I riffed a bit harder on the science stuff than a graduate seminar on the book would. Overall, I thought this was an excellent read. It seems more relevant now than when it was written, because it cautions about the dangers of powerful organizations buying a bunch of data and using that to craft narratives we want to hear while deligitimating narratives that hurt them (but which might be true).

We know now that this shouldn’t be a futuristic, dystopian fear (as it was in Lyotard’s time). It’s really happening with targeted advertising and the rise of government propaganda and illegitimate news sources propagating our social media feeds. We believe what the people with money want us to believe, and it’s impossible to free ourselves from it until we understand the situation with the same level of clarity that Lyotard did.

The Infinite Cycle of Gladwell’s David and Goliath

I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. The book is like most Gladwell books. It has a central thesis, and then interweaves studies and anecdotes to make the case. In this one, the thesis is fairly obvious: sometimes things we think of as disadvantages have hidden advantages and sometimes things we think of as advantages have hidden disadvantages.

The opening story makes the case from the Biblical story of David and Goliath. Read it for more details, but roughly he says that Goliath’s giant strength was a hidden disadvantage because it made him slow. David’s shepherding was a hidden advantage because it made him good with a sling. It looks like the underdog won that fight, but it was really Goliath who was at a disadvantage the whole time.

The main case I want to focus on is the chapter on education, since that is something I’ve talked a lot about here. The case he makes is both interesting and poses what I see as a big problem for the thesis. There is an infinite cycle of hidden advantages/disadvantages that makes it hard to tell if the apparent (dis)advantages are anything but a wash.

Gladwell tells the story of a girl who loves science. She does so well in school and is so motivated that she gets accepted to Brown University. Everyone thinks of an Ivy League education as being full of advantages. It’s hard to think of any way in which there would be a hidden disadvantage that wouldn’t be present in someplace like Small State College (sorry, I don’t remember what her actual “safety school” was).

It turns out that she ended up feeling like a complete inadequate failure despite being reasonably good. The people around her were so amazing that she got impostor syndrome and quit science. If she had gone to Small State College, she would have felt amazing, gotten a 4.0, and become a scientist like she wanted.

It turns out we have quite a bit of data on this subject, and this is a general trend. Gladwell then goes on to make just about the most compelling case against affirmative action I’ve ever heard. He points out that letting a minority into a college that they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten into is not an advantage. It’s a disadvantage. Instead of excelling at a smaller school and getting the degree they want, they’ll end up demoralized and quit.

At this point, I want to reiterate that this has nothing to do with actual ability. It is entirely a perception thing. Gladwell is not claiming the student can’t handle the work or some nonsense. The student might even end up an A student. But even the A students at these top schools quit STEM majors because they perceive themselves to be not good enough.

Gladwell implies that this hidden disadvantage is bad enough that the girl at Brown should have gone to Small State College. But if we take Gladwell’s thesis to heart, there’s an obvious hidden advantage within the hidden disadvantage. Girl at Brown was learning valuable lessons by coping with (perceived) failure that she wouldn’t have learned at Small State College.

It seems kind of insane to shelter yourself like this. Becoming good at something always means failing along the way. If girl at Brown had been a sheltered snowflake at Small State College and graduated with her 4.0 never being challenged, that seems like a hidden disadvantage within the hidden advantage of going to the “bad” school. The better plan is to go to the good school, feel like you suck at everything, and then have counselors to help students get over their perceived inadequacies.

As a thought experiment, would you rather have a surgeon who was a B student at the top med school in the country, constantly understanding their limitations, constantly challenged to get better, or the A student at nowhere college who was never challenged and now has an inflated sense of how good they are? The answer is really easy.

This gets us to the main issue I have with the thesis of the book. If every advantage has a hidden disadvantage and vice-versa, this creates an infinite cycle. We may as well throw up our hands and say the interactions of advantages and disadvantages is too complicated to ever tell if anyone is at a true (dis)advantage. I don’t think this is a fatal flaw for Gladwell’s thesis, but I do wish it had been addressed.

Five Predictions for a Trump Presidency

I thought I’d write this post so it’s on the record. Here’s five predictions for the Trump presidency. These are merely things he’s been telling us he will do. I hope I eat my words in four years.

The number of uninsured will skyrocket. 

He has said he will repeal the Affordable Care Act on Day 1 in office. He’s given us no indication as to his replacement except “competition, free markets, mumble, mumble …” This is in stark contrast to years of Republican policy. Republicans have run on the idea of personal responsibility. The ACA finally achieved this by mandating everyone to buy their own insurance.

Trump wants to repeal this. Now millions of people will be uninsured but still have health costs. These costs will shift to the public. As a side note, I showed why competition doesn’t work in this post. I also predict the cost of health insurance will skyrocket. We can’t be confused when this happens. It is very well understood.

If you are a freelancer or your employer doesn’t subsidize your insurance, I urge you to read the terms of whatever looks affordable very carefully after the repeal of the ACA. I predict the only affordable insurance will be junk. Don’t get duped.

There will be a global recession.

Trump doesn’t seem to understand America’s unique position in the world. He plans to add over $5 trillion to the debt. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates Trump’s plan to raise the debt to over 105% of our GDP. This has a lot of vast consequences for a country. The self-proclaimed “King of Debt” has been able to leverage these risky scenarios in his personal business by trashing the business.

You can’t do this with a country. The high debt to GDP ratio will likely lead to more expensive loans and at least a minor debt spiral along the lines of Greece. The U.S. will enter a bad recession, and this will lead to a global recession as well.

Also, he plans to tariff the crap out of countries. Many historians argue that the Smoot-Hawley tariffs were the primary cause of the Great Depression. Whether that is true or not, you can decide, but we should learn from history. It is doubtful Trump knows anything about this to know if it is dangerous or not.

The price of goods will rise much faster than inflation.

Trump has proposed several ideas to bring manufacturing jobs back. It’s likely no jobs will come to the U.S. because of this, but that isn’t officially one of my predictions. He plans to incentivize companies to produce in the U.S. by making it very expensive to produce outside the U.S.

There’s basically only two ways this could go. They keep producing outside the U.S. (likely) in which case prices of these goods has to increase to make up for the tariffs. Or they return to the U.S. where labor is more expensive, and the price of the goods must increase to make up for the cost of labor.

A sub-prediction here is that many businesses will go under because of this. Once prices rise, they’ll sell less. If they don’t sell enough, they go bankrupt. I know Trump sees bankruptcy as a thing to be celebrated, but I’m not sure the people that want their manufacturing jobs back will be too happy with this one.

Middle and middle-upper income brackets will see a tax increase.

I think this one frustrates me the most. As far as I can tell, my in-laws voted for Trump solely on the fear-mongering tactic of Trump yelling “She’s going to raise your taxes.” Guess what? Hillary had a detailed plan, and it did not involve raising anyone’s taxes except the very top, top tiny percent.

On the other hand, my in-laws might be surprised when their personal exemptions disappear. Trump’s plan increases the standard deduction but removes all personal exemptions, and the  conservative-leaning Tax Foundation estimates about 7.8 million households in the $60K – $100K income range would see a slight increase in federal income tax.

Woops. I guess they should have looked up his actual proposal instead of listening to someone who’s made their living off of swindling people.

A nuclear weapon will be used.

Our culture has become a bit desensitized to this grave issue. We see images of nuclear mushroom clouds all the time from cartoons to movies. I think it bears taking a moment and contemplating just how terrible nuclear weapons are. I know this prediction sounds like hysteria, but hear me out.

Trump, more than any other prediction on this list, has repeatedly, almost at every single opportunity, shown complete disregard for the horrifying consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. He doesn’t understand why we can’t use them. He doesn’t understand why other countries can’t develop them. He doesn’t understand how current treaties deter the use and proliferation of them.

Trump also has very thin skin. A single tweet can send him into a rampage. This is a dangerous combination.

I’m also not going to be so bold as to say we will be the one to use the nuclear weapon. My prediction is merely that someone will. He has said we are renegotiating deals across the board. This will create global instability. The dangerous combination of treaties in flux and Trump waving the threat of nuclear weapons will lead someone to pull the trigger.

I see two likely scenarios. The first is that Trump tears up the Iran Nuclear Accord. Iran develops nuclear weapons in the interim, and they are the first to use them from a threat in the Middle East. The other is that Trump lets South Korea develop nuclear weapons, and the unstable situation in North Korea leads one side to be too worried.

Trump has this phrase: Peace through strength. Let’s ignore the fact that tearing up NATO and promoting nuclear proliferation actually weakens us. I say: Peace through stability.

Some extra non-predictions.

I’ll reiterate that all of the above has been readily available information for anyone who cared to look it up. They are predictions based on promises he ran on. If he doesn’t hold to his promises, they won’t happen. Here’s some things he said he’ll do that I don’t foresee happening.

He won’t build the wall. It’s a terrible idea. It’s expensive. It probably wouldn’t decrease the number of illegal immigrants by much (some models predict it will increase the number). I don’t think any of these facts will go into the decision not to build it. I just think he swindled his supporters by playing up a big image.

He will not implement massive deportation on the scale he claimed. Tearing millions of families apart would be a PR nightmare for him, and we all know Trump wants to be loved. His approval ratings would plummet when newspapers made the cover images children crying as their parents are forcibly taken in front of them.

As a final note, I have no idea what “Make America Great Again” could possibly mean. On basically every measure of greatness, America has never been greater (income inequality is worse, but Trump has no care for this). If we try to return to some past moment, it will, almost by definition, be worse.

Do we live in a patriarchy?

I recently read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. It was far better than I was expecting. The essays are personal and humorous yet address a lot of serious and deep issues. Her takedown of trigger warnings is particularly good. The essays are best when sticking to specific topics like the critiques of The Help, 50 Shades, The Hunger Games, Twilight, 12 Years a Slave, and Tyler Perry’s work. The inside look of the professional Scrabble scene is entertaining.

The essays get a bit worse when being more general. Sometimes back-to-back essays contradict each other. In one she argues that there should be more diverse representation in TV, movies, and books, because people have a hard time relating to people that don’t look like them. In the next, she spends 5,000 words about how deeply she identified with the white girls in Sweet Valley High. How are we supposed to take the previous essay seriously after that?

The most cringe-worthy part had to do with the elusive concept of “patriarchy.” She had just gotten through critiquing Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, which provides a book-long study with evidence and statistics to argue that patriarchy is essentially dead.

Gay’s sophisticated response to this was to laugh it off. Ha ha ha. Of course it’s not dead. Just look around you. It is so obvious we live in a patriarchy. Sorry Gay, but you can’t argue against the conclusion of an entire book by saying the conclusion is “obviously” incorrect.

Let me begin with a (fictional) story. In college I took a lot of physics. One day the professor gave a bunch of solid arguments with evidence and studies to back it up that the Earth goes around the Sun. I burst out laughing. It was so obviously false a conclusion.

I raised my hand, ready to embarrass the professor. I pointed out that I see the Sun go around the Earth every single day with my own two eyes. He might have had some fancy arguments, but I had obviousness on my side.

It is an unfortunate truth that much of what seems obvious (we can even produce convincing arguments!) is often wrong. This is exactly what is happening when Gay’s rebuttal is: look at the political system, most of Congress is men, we’ve never had a woman president, thus men hold all the political power.

That is convincing on its surface like the Sun going around the Earth is convincing on its surface. The gender of elected officials is one metric to measure political power. Can we think of any other?

Maybe we should take the premise of a representational democracy seriously and say the electorate have the power, because they elect members of congress. Who votes more? Well, women do! Now we’re at an impasse, because one metric claims women have the political power, and the other metric claims men have the power. This is looking a little less obvious now that we dig deeper.

I haven’t defined patriarchy yet. Most people don’t, because they don’t want to be tied down to a particular type of evidence. The relevant dictionary definition is: a social system in which power is held by men, through cultural norms and customs that favor men and withhold opportunity from women.

For each metric you come up with to show our culture favors men, I’ll come up with one to show it favors women. My starting statistics will be: life expectancy, education (measured by amount of degrees conferred), incarceration rate, poverty rate, homelessness, victims of violent crimes, workplace fatalities, and suicide rate. Your turn.

I grant you that many people argue patriarchy causes these problems for men (often stated “patriarchy hurts men too”). But that’s playing with words. By definition, a patriarchy “favors men,” and therefore cannot be the cause of society-wide disadvantages for men.

Here’s the truth. Any claim about anything can be supported with evidence if the person who believes the claim gets to pick the metric by which we measure something. This is a form of confirmation bias and sometimes the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. Raw statistics like the ones we’ve been looking at are slippery business, because they tell us nothing about causation. Is the sparsity of women in congress because the opportunity is being withheld from them by some social system that favors men, or is it some other causal factor at play?

When you pick the gender of Congress as a measure, you see ahead of time that it works in your favor, and that’s why you picked it. In other words, when you look for a pattern, you’ll find it. To avoid statistical fallacies like this, we need a metric whose results we are blind to, and we need a solid argument that this metric is actually measuring what we think it is. Only then do we test what the results show. Then we repeat this with many other metrics, because the issue is way too complicated for one metric to prove anything.

I’m not saying we don’t live in a patriarchy. What I’m saying is that you can’t laugh off someone that claims we don’t with a book-long argument to support her case because it is “obviously false” to you. Any argument that we live in a patriarchy is going to have to be subtle and complicated for the reasons listed above. It’s also more likely that the answer is somewhere in the middle. Men are favored in some places; women are favored in some places; and it’s counterproductive to decide if one outweighs the other. We can work towards equality without one gender “winning” the “oppression” war.

Preliminary Thoughts on Upstream Color

Last night I watched Upstream Color, the new Shane Carruth movie, for the third time. It is a pretty difficult and abstract film. I’m not sure when I’m next going to watch it. I want to record some half-formed ideas I have about it, so I can refresh my memory in the future if I watch it again.

There is the level of analysis of the film of figuring out what is going on. This in and of itself might take more than once through the movie. I won’t talk about that at all. Then there are some pretty easy themes which are just handed to you once you realize what is going on. For this I’m referring to the fact that Kris starts in a job that requires her to play certain roles and lie to people. She was least happy here. Then she moves to a basic entry level job and becomes a little happier.

But it isn’t until she sheds the societal pretense at the end and works in and with nature and animals that she can truly be herself and be happy. Since this is the primary theme of Thoreau’s Walden, and that book plays such a prominent role in the film, I think this was meant to be an easy theme to pick out But there are lots of details that are totally mysterious if we take this to be the main point, so we’ll move on.

Here’s my theory. This is going to sound tautological in this general form. The movie is about having something happen to you which then ties you to something else without your knowledge of even being tied to this other thing. Then you wake up to the fact that you are tied to it and have to cut your ties to this thing in order to become a happy, healthy, independent person.

Let’s use religion and politics as examples even though I don’t think there is enough concrete evidence in the movie to pin it down to one of these two. When you’re young something usually happens to you that determines your religion or politics. It could be your parents, or some other family, or certain groups you fall in with. While these beliefs are being formed you are totally unaware of the process going on.

This is like the guy who drugs Kris. He forces something on her without her knowing about it at all. Just like not being able to tell when or how you formed certain religious or political beliefs, Kris doesn’t know what happened to her. When the worm is removed it permanently ties her to the pig and as a consequence The Sampler.

This detail confused me the first two times through the movie. How do you explain the fact that the person that drugged her is not the one that ultimately gains influence over her? The lack of motivation was weird. But under this analogy it makes sense. After the initial indoctrination of certain ideas, you get turned over to other sources which then are able to exploit their influence over you. In the case of religion, your parents turn you over to clergy or in politics it’s biased magazines, talk radio, pundits, etc. The Sampler is a symbol for any of these.

Something that supports this idea is the fact that it is a drug that initiates all this, and of course we have the famous Marx quote, “Religion is the opium of the people.” There is also the phrase “drinking the kool aid.” This means that you buy into a certain set of ideas which outsiders find strange. But at the beginning we literally have kids drinking the kool aid, and we can watch how the drink causes them to become connected.

We also see how this connection isn’t always bad. It provides support and comfort in times of trouble. I think this is the point of the scene where we see the wife taken to the hospital. The Sampler is interfering here to help the guy in this time of trouble. He has influence and maybe the ability to change the memory of how the previous scene played out to bring the guy comfort.

On the other hand, it seems the influence causes a lot of grief, suffering, and meaningless tedium. Jeff keeps making chains of straw wrappers. There is the painful loss of the piglets. Kris and Jeff experience great pain through this, and they don’t even know why. Of course, the initial transformation was horrifying causing a complete loss of individual identity and being forced into reinventing their selves without their knowledge.

The next step is the awakening. Kris is awakened to the fact that The Sampler has this influence through two means. The first is the pivotal scene in the pool. She has Walden memorized, but the key feature seems to be that she transitions from merely repeating the words to actually thinking about them and understanding them.

Here I think that Walden is just merely a stand-in for any great art, literature, or philosophy. The way we awaken ourselves to the fact that these biased sources are just feeding us lies for their own agenda is through knowledge. We can’t just mindlessly read books and expect to awaken to the truth they contain. We have to contemplate them and think about them seriously as works of art.

This is further supported by the fact that The Sampler’s music is the other piece that causes the awakening. It is again art that allows Kris to see through what is going on. Although, this time it is produced by the person who has the influence over her. So maybe this means that by examining critically what is put out by the sources we were mindlessly following we can break free (e.g. whatever holy book or political propaganda is being used).

Lastly is actually breaking free. Kris kills the sampler. Of course, I think this is a metaphor, and you don’t need to literally kill the people exerting the influence. On the other hand, the extremeness seems warranted because it really takes something that essentially amounts to a death (of the ego, of the community you belong to, etc) to fully break free of the grasp and escape the cycle.

The fact that there is this perpetual cycle: person who draws you in, person who takes over once you’re in, using you once you’re in to continue the cycle, and so on and then the cycle gets broken once the people awaken to the fact that it exists fits perfectly with this interpretation. The parent who has broken free from the cycle of religion will not continue it with their child.

I think another important thing to note is that even though it is a cycle which essentially traps people (i.e. the cycle itself has negative consequences), it seems that none of the members of the cycle even realize they are a part of perpetuating it. They are just doing what they do, which may or may not be good or bad on its own, but if the point is to break free of a damaging cycle, then at least they are not guilty of intentionally perpetuating this.

On “Being Political”

I really do want to get back to some actual math that I’ve found interesting recently, but there is one last thing that has been turning in my head recently. It is on the ethics of a certain attitude that has developed in our culture. It is the apathetic attitude toward things labeled as “political.”

My family is a largely non-political family. In fact, they are so anti-political that certain members aren’t familiar enough with politics that they probably would have to take a 50/50 guess at what party Obama belongs to (or Bush, to emphasize that it isn’t a confusion of being close to center).

Don’t get me wrong. I hate “politics” as much as the next person. I hate the lies for political gain. I hate talking around issues instead of about them. Heck. I hate the idea of endlessly talking to stall doing things. I hate that you have to satisfy a constituency instead of thinking what the best option would be. I hate that religion has incredible amounts of influence on decisions that should be rational. And so on….

So here is my claim. It doesn’t matter if you hate or love politics, in any case it is unethical to use this as an excuse. What do you think about the fact that gay marriages could be repealed? Oh, that’s just a political thing. I don’t really follow that. What about the genocides in Darfur? Well, there isn’t really anything we can do about that. Oh, you went to that protest? That was pointless. It is political and the politicians aren’t affected by protests. The examples are endless.

This idea that because something can be linked to politics (or that it is something that politicians will have to vote on) is hopeless to change and hence a waste of time and money to try to change is unethical. It has become an excuse to stand by and watch inhuman things happen without feeling guilty. The main problem is that people that do this are completely unaware that this is what they are doing. It isn’t really their fault. This idea has been culturally accepted, and culturally reinforced when we see all the scandals and lying going on.

I guess my main point is that this cultural acceptance needs to start to turn around if we really want to see positive changes. The next time you hear someone turn something down or refuse to comment or act on something for this reason point it out. The best way is to head-on point out that there is a moral issue that is not political that they are standing by and letting happen and just using that as an excuse. I mean, what can’t be considered “political”? The statement, “That’s all politics,” is really void of meaning when you think of it that way.