Nihilism and Culture

Something I'd like to do some more thinking about is the relationship between nihilism and cultural innovation. There's certainly something intuitive about the way a culture that sees no future for itself might feel free to engage in free cultural play; with no future to plan for, there is no need to be responsible and risk averse.

One obvious example is the art and music of Weimar Germany; in a visit to New York last weekend I caught an exhibition at the Neue Gallery of Otto Dix's work from that period. It's awesome, disturbing stuff. The suite of 50 etchings called "Der Krieg" is a relentless indictment of war - torn and mutilated bodies,  rotting flesh, piles of corpses at the front, with debauchery and violent sexuality behind the front lines. It's not a fun exhibition, but absolutely worth seeing. 

A more recent example is the New York City of the late sixties to the late seventies. There's a new movie, Rubble Kings, that explores the way the gangs had almost completely taken over the city by the mid-seventies. But at some point, somehow, things started to change, and the violent gangland impulses  were sublimated into the creative energies of hip hop. Here's the trailer - it looks fantastic:



especially the 50 



Squarespace frigged with the internal settings on this page and now it looks all weird. I'll try to fix it up tonight. In the meantime, speaking of weirdness here's a pic I snapped of Juliette Lewis on stage in Brooklyn last weekend. Think Black Crowes tunes sung by a Celine Dion impersonator. For the record, Lewis was wearing tight black stirrup pants, a blue sequinned bra, and a blue feather headdress. She also occasionally wore this weird garment, like football shoulder pads but made out of red feathers. Her long hair was dyed blue. 



Fixies: the film

To Live and Ride in LA is a new film about the city's underground fixed-gear bike culture. It looks pretty hardcore -- sort of like Dogtown and Z Boys meets Style Wars, but for cyclists. Here's a trailer:



Math for locavores

As I was saying:

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus. This is particularly the case with respect to the energy costs of transporting food. One popular and oft-repeated statistic is that it takes 36 (sometimes it’s 97) calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to the East Coast. That’s an apples and oranges (or maybe apples and rocks) comparison to begin with, because you can’t eat petroleum or burn iceberg lettuce.

It is also an almost complete misrepresentation of reality, as those numbers reflect the entire energy cost of producing lettuce from seed to dinner table, not just transportation. Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill.



The "ground zero mosque" and the wisdom of voltaire

I have to confess that the idea of a mosque anywhere near ground zero kinda bugs me. Not because I think the place is "sacred", nor is it because I think, as Giuliani does, that muslims should refrain from building a mosque/cultural center out of "sensitivity". No, the simple fact is that I don't like mosques anywhere, for the same reason that I don't like churches: I think that whatever else they are, they are monuments to superstition, irrationality, closed-mindedness, and bigotry. Ultimately, I'm inclined to agree with Christopher Hitchens, that religion poisons everything. To that extent, the ideal number of new mosques we should be building is the same as the number of new churches, i.e., zero.

But given that there are churches, and given that there are mosques, then I think the more the better. On this score, I like to fall back on Voltaire's observation about England, that it was a land "of many faiths but only one sauce." His point was that far from being a threat to the stability of society, diversity of opinion was actually its foundation. "If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of despotism," he wrote. "If there were only two they would cut each other's throats; but there are 30, and they live in peace."

The Cordoba project has been repeatedly described as a 13-storey "raised middle finger" aimed at the relatives of the victims of 9/11. That is precisely the wrong way of thinking about it. If anything, it would be a raised middle finger aimed directly at America's most implacable enemies.

For the full argument, read my column in today's Ottawa Citizen.



Authentic new york

I love photographs of New York from the seventies and eighties. The Handcaper sent me this photoessay of the NYC subway from the early eighties:



On Manliness

1. My day job is working as an editor at Canadian Business magazine. One of my favourite elements in the front section is our "Ode", which is meant as a sort obituary to failed companies, brands, or product lines, with a bit of a moral or life lesson at the end. Recent Odes we've published have been to the Hummer, Little Orphan Annie, and the Ford Mercury.

I wrote the most recent one, about Old Spice Guy, and in this case it is more of a success story:

Like all top performers, Old Spice Guy knows that it's always best to leave them wanting more. And so, with online viewership just starting to tail off and the copycats (including an execrable one from Cisco Systems) already appearing, the Old Spice Guy campaign was cancelled. Isaiah Mustafa is off to make a film with Jennifer Aniston, while Old Spice Guy himself retires to an honoured spot, next to the BMW film series "The Hire" and Burger King's Subservient Chicken, in the pantheon of social-marketing success.

2. On the same subject but a completely different tone -- my review of Sebastian Junger's War:

Like most books that give the grunts-eye-view of combat, War is really a book about masculinity, and the distinctly male ways of bonding, in-group/out-group dynamics, and the relationship between male sexuality and violence. These are the same themes that haunt the film, only amplified, and I don’t have much more to add than what I wrote in my review of Restrepo.




Hipster Christian, oh the time has come?

Last week, the wsj ran a piece by Brett McCracken complaining about the rise of "cool Christianity", which is the effort by churches to stem the outward flood of young believers by making belief seem cool or edgy. A largely unhelpful criticism of the piece can be found here, but I actually think McCracken is exactly right when he says, "As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don't want cool as much as we want real."

One of the most interesting set of responses to the argument of the Authenticity Hoax has come from religious readers, many of whom have heartily endorsed the book's conclusions. At first I was confused by this (since the book more or less assumes secularism), but then I realised that many believers see my arguments as a vindication of what they have been saying all along. Insofar as the search for the "authentic" is an attempt at replacing the lost religious dimension of our lives, to the extent that my argument succeeds it can be read as endorsing the religious worldview. Of course the search for the "authentic" in all things eco-and organic is a hoax: the only place to get the real real deal is on your knees, in the pews.

It's funny, the churches seem to be getting on the "cool" bandwagon about a decade too late. Cool is dead, it's all about authenticity now, and churches are abandoning their key product line just as it is coming back into style.




The rise of digital minimalism

The BBC has a story today about the latest in downshifting: digital minimalism. Kids these days are discovering that atoms are for oldsters. Unlike their parents and older siblings, they don't need to lug around shelves full of books, folders full of files, boxes full of CDs. Instead, they live in the computing cloud, replacing all that heavy stuff with everything from "online photo albums to virtual filing cabinets to digital musical instruments."

The irony is that the star of the piece, Kelly Sutton, is a 22 yearold hipster who is clearly angling for a book deal with his blog, As Rob Horning says over on his blog, this would be easier to take seriously if it wasn't just another iteration of half-baked stunt-lifestylism, from No Impact Man to the guy who did a new job every week for a year.

But I'm struck by the relative absence of any moral or anti-consumerist dimension to this. Unlike the Bonfire of the Brands guy (from 2006) or Michael Landy's infamous Break Down work of performance art from 2001, the digital minimalists seem to be just looking for a new kind of consumerism. Again, I'm inclined to agree with Horning, that it's mostly a form of implicit status-seeking.And as he says,  "Not everyone can be 'minimalist' because then minimal will simply become normal, and some new distinctive posture will have to be adopted."

What pose might that be? It's funny, this came up in my discussion with Dan Gardner during the Ottawa Writer's Festival. I was talking about the successive iterations of Veblenian status-seeking, from conspicuous consumption to conspicuous rebellion to conspicuous authenticity, and Dan asked me what the end point would be, where it goes from here. I didn't have a good answer at the time, but I was thinking on it afterward and I think it probably goes in two directions.

First, we get an even greater fetishization of unique physical objects. You can already see this, with the cult of "artisanal" that has already replaced "local" as the definitive authentic consumer good (for a recent example: artisanal toothpicks). But beyond that, I think we'll start to see the body itself become the site of conspicuous lifestyle display. It's no accident, I think, that Fukuyama followed up The End of History with a book about posthumanism. When our sense of self is no longer wrapped up in world-historical ideologies or isms, what is left of human identity? When we no longer need stuff to express who we are or where we stand, how do we engage in status display? When almost everything of value is made of bits, the last field of contention is our physicality itself, whose tenuous hold on the real becomes the central narrative in the digital age.


Why we (still) need a carbon tax

The New Scientist reports on a study, by Shahzeen Attari at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University, on voluntary efforts at reducing carbon emission that underscores just  how ineffective these measures are. Even if we set aside the obvious (and I think insuperable) free-rider problems and assume that everyone is on board with the need to cut emissions, there is a bigger problem, which is that people are not very good at estimating the energy use of various activities and appliances:

“For small devices and appliances, people have a pretty good understanding of how much energy they use,” says Attari. “However, for large devices they really underestimate the amount of energy they use.”

As a result people underestimated the energy consumed by devices by a factor of nearly three, she says. So when asked to compare moderate energy-consuming devices, respondents correctly identified that desktop computers consume more energy than laptops, but they significantly underestimated the difference.

One could argue that the solution in this case is a proper public education and labeling system. So just as you know how many calories and grams of sodium are in every bag of chips you buy, we could force manufacturers to put carbon footprint labels on everything they make. But one difficulty is that in order for labels to be effective, people need to be able to understand them — and as Chris MacDonald has been arguing, that’s a very shaky assumption.

A bigger problem is the Achilles heel of all attempts at changes society through moral incentives, which is the way even the best intentioned people are prone to rationalization. There are a lot of things we want to do or consume, and when we are made to feel guilty about it we tend to “launder” our consumption through a moral filter. As Attari says, “Because people might just replace their light bulbs, and feel like they’re off the hook; that they’ve done their part.”

This feeling is even more pronounced when it comes to foreign travel, according to Graham Miller at the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK, and colleagues. When the researchers asked volunteers in the UK about their attitude to sustainable tourism, they found people felt they “deserved the right to fly because they took pro-environmental actions throughout the year”.

So here’s why voluntary efforts will never work:

1. It’s a massive collective action problem

2. Consumers don’t have the information they need to make informed decisions

3. Even when they do, they tend to rationalize their preferred behaviour.

The obvious — indeed, only — solution is a carbon tax, which handily eliminates all three problems at once.


A Life in the Woods

The first book of philosophy I ever read was Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. I read it in high school, and was mesmerized. The volume I had included his essay on Civil Disobedience; it's fair to say that book is what eventually led me to study philosophy in university. 

I read something the other day that said that the moral of Walden should not be that technology and civilization are bad, but rather that we need to pay more attention to how we use technology. That's fair enough. To that end, I'm off for a few days to paddle around Algonquin Park in Ontario. I'm looking forward to getting off Twitter and the rest of the internet for a while, but I'll see you all back here next week. 

Feel free to keep sending me any links or ideas or criticisms or anything else; I really welcome the correspondence and I value the acquaintances I've made through this book and this blog. 

- ap


Some interesting links

1. A rather annoying interview with Christopher Hitchens conducted by the extremely annoying Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. As if the big issue is whether Hitch will discover god on his deathbed.

2. Stephen Hawking can't make up his mind. First he said that humans need to be worried about rapacious spacefaring aliens come to steal our natural resources. Now he says that species is most likely to be... us. He's rapidly turning into David Suzuki.

3. In praise of the enlightenment, from City Journal.

4. An adman quits to find his soul -- an authenticity quest. (via @ajkandy)



Mad Men and Englishmen

The fourth season of Mad Men is well underway now, and last night's episode saw 1964 topple into 1965. After showing us occasional hints of the cultural earthquake to come (esp Midge's beatnik friends in the first season), the big show is finally starting. Last night's show flagged just about everything to come -- Joan's abortions, her husband getting ready to ship out to Vietnam, and the Berkely sit-ins of 1964-65. The last days of the old regime went out in style though, with Lane and Don spending their New Year's Eve getting drunk on scotch at the office, watching Godzilla, putting steaks on their genitals, and picking up hookers. You think that's bad behaviour? Wait till we see what the kids get up to this year.

What will it mean for the ad agency? As always, Natasha Vargas-Cooper's footnotes to the episode are excellent, and this point is bang-on:

In the 60s, the symbolic role that youth played in American culture—honesty to self, renewal, rejection of ancient values—became a driving market force. This notion was really that becoming an adult meant participating in consumer culture. This is perhaps the most loathsome legacy of the Boomer's ascent to cultural dominance: the perpetual teenage mentality of rebellion through buying things.

We know where this ends up.



The Authenticity Hoax infects Australian Politics

On the excellent ABC blog "The Drum", an Australian academic named Jeff Sparrow laments the importation of the discourse of "authenticity" into Australian politics. It seems that the current election campaign has become dominated a competition over which candidate, prime minster Julia Gillard or opposition leader Tony Abbot is "more real", complete with a call for Gillard's handlers to "let Julia be Julia". It's a shame, really.

The first half of Sparrow's piece pretty much tracks the argument in chapter six of The Authenticity Hoax -- he's even kind enough to give me a shoutout. Then he gets to the heart of the matter:

Quite obviously, Julia Gillard's pledge to find herself does not represent a renunciation of politics-as-usual so much as an intensification of it, with her attack on her handlers almost certainly scripted by those handlers themselves, fully aware of the electoral impact of a properly-designed Turnip Day.

The new focus on political character in Australian politics ('what is Julia really like?', 'just what kind of person is Tony?') directly replicates the preoccupations of US campaigning, in which all candidates try for authenticity, all of the time. But why, exactly, have we moved to this presidential style of politics?

Sparrow and I agree that while the temptation is the blame "the media", that's just not good enough. After all, the media is a consumer good like any other, and blaming the media for serving up bad politics is like blaming McDonald's for serving up bad hamburgers. Someone is buying it, the question is why?

Here is where Sparrow and I part company. He blames "market fundamentalism" and the ideology of "neoliberalism":

The neoliberal turn was always about more than pure economics, involving an insistence that notions of individual autonomy, consumerism, efficient markets and transactional thinking should be extended into all social relations, even - or, perhaps, especially - those that had previously been dominated by quite different rules.

I don't quite agree. Think back to the mid-2000s in Canada, where there was so much hand-wringing over "aliented voters" -- the recurring theme then was that none of the parties properly represented the views of individual voters; the need to compromise by supporting a big-tent party was seen as a shameful compromise.

One of the recurring arguments in the book is that the "authentic turn", in politics as elsewhere, is, paradoxically, a consequence of anti-market thinking. And yes, I think Sparrow is right that much of the disaffection of these supposedly "alienated" voters seems to have been a product of their having adopted and internalized the ideology of consumer sovereignty. But we need to be a little more careful: the main ideological motivation for this is not itself pro-market ideology: just the opposite. The desire for the authentic, in politics as elsewhere, is largely a consequence of anti-market thinking, which is just to say that it is the authenticity-seekers who are creating the very conditions for their own exploitation.



Grim times for publishers

It was inevitable that the book industry would get all shook up by technology, in the way that music, film, and newspapers and magazines had done before it. Publishing hung on for longer for no reason other than it took a while longer for a delivery mechanism to come along that would rival the book as a technology.

The upside of this is that it is opening up new ways of experimenting with publishing -- Neal Stephenson's Mongoliad is a really interesting experiment. 

But just as Amazon made the bricks and mortar bookstore obsolete, the Kindle, Kobo, iPad and other such are making the book itself a quaint little objet de nostalgie.

I take no pleasure in this -- I write for a living, and writing is a very conservative business. But for that very reason, I'm worried that the publishing business is even worse situated to deal with the challenge than even the music and film bizes were. But I'm just guessing here, since I have no real experience on the inside. But someone who has worked in the biz, inside and out, is Megan Hustad. She has a great rundown of what the main problems are (with loads of good links as well), but her last point caught me by surprise:

All that said, however, there’s one blanketing sin that largely goes unmentioned. Any publisher that wants to exist let alone remain relevant in 2015 will have to figure out how to wriggle out from underneath it. The fundamental error, as I see it, is that the traditional publishing model privileges this formula:

  • Underestimated costs + Overestimated benefits = Project approval.

In other words, before most publishers agree to publish anything, they run sales projections spun from a highly selective glance at the track records of “comparison titles” (as they’re called) that sold well. Comp titles that sold poorly are routinely ignored. Only projects for which all decision-makers have bought into best-case scenarios are pursued.

Now I'm dying to know what "comparison titles" my publishers looked at for the Authenticity Hoax.