Saturday, December 25, 2010

words were said

Many were upset by the Pope's recent claim: "In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children."

Here's some unsolicited advice from yours truly: ignore passive-voice statements. Translate them as "blah blah blah," and then say, "Well, that's meaningless, so I can ignore it." You'll throw some babies out with that bathwater, but most of them will be baby trolls.

WHO theorized it? A bunch of priests? An academic? Some guy selling porn? Most ideas have been theorized by somebody. It's been theorized that the world is flat. It's been theorized that I shit five-dollar bills.

Seriously, just ignore statements like that. They have no content -- just not-very-good rhetoric pretending to be content. Same goes for "there's a school of thought that..." and "it's been said that..."

Tell me who said it and what his qualifications are. Or shut up. You're wasting oxygen.

what exactly does a guy like Julian Assange want?

On a forum I frequent, someone wrote: It does raise an interesting question -- what exactly does a guy like Julian Assange want? What does he want that someone, anyone, can give him? Not celebrity, not money, not power ... What is left?

That, to me, is an extraordinary question. And, by that, I don't mean it's a stupid one. It's actually an elegant, pithy wording of a common attitude -- one that's diametrically opposed to a less common attitude. The part that kills me is "what is left?" It's like a knife in my belly.

An even pithier version is "Looks like someone has too much time on his hands." I've complained, on Metafilter and other places, about that phrase. I hate it. Like Assange, I have a lot of oddball interests (luckily for me -- and I really mean "luckily," because there but for the grace of God... -- hacking isn't one of them), interests that have nothing to do with power, money, notoriety or sex. I spend hours and hours on those interests, and so I get "Looks like someone has too much time on his hands" a lot. To be honest, my response (which I generally keep to myself) is "up yours, you soulless fuck!"

But I understand that, for many, those urges are pretty much all there is, except that I'd replace "celebrity" with a the larger category of social cache. According to this view, we do what we do for love, friendship, respect, money, power and sex. And that's it. Everything we do should be traceable (if not reducible) to one of those fundamental drives. So if I spend two years building a lego tower that I never show to anyone, I'm acting in an inexplicable way. I have too much time on my hands. I am doing stuff "for no reason," because when you take those commonly understood reasons, "what is left?"

What's left is working through a system, completing a project, learning a new skill, experiencing a particular sensation or ritual... not for any of those common purposes -- not so you can impress people, get girls or whatever -- but, as the famous Everest climber said, "Because it's there."

Sticking steadfastly to some political ideal is the same urge. Ultimately, it's aesthetic. It's working a system through to its logical ends, insisting on dotting every i and crossing every t. To that mindset, a system is pointless unless it's perfect -- or unless its experienced perfectly. This is the same drive that propels nuns to take vows of silence. It drove Jackson Pollack. It makes Stephen Sondheim say that every tiny word in a song lyric is vitally important. It makes computer programmers -- some of them -- spend hours coining names for variables.

(Amateur programers think the whole point is making the program work. It will work just as well if a variable is named hs as if it's named highScore. Pros know that getting the program to work is just part of the point. It should be readable, self-documenting and elegant. So highScore is a much better choice. Or should it be playerHighScore? Or humanPlayerHighScore? ...)

One of my obsessions is directing plays. Yes, I do it partly because it's a way for me to hang out with my friends. Yes, I do it because I like the praise. Yes, I do it -- or I did it -- to meet girls (I married an actress). I would happily do it for money, if only someone would offer me some.

But if you told me I'll never get paid (which is likely), that I could only direct actors I don't particularly like, that no one will ever see my plays, that (assuming I was single), girls wouldn't give a shit... Well, I'd be upset, but I'd still direct plays. That's right: I'd direct plays even if I had to act them out myself, in an otherwise empty room, for an audience of myself. And if you don't understand why I'd do that, you'll never understand "what's left." Because what's left is the process of working on the play. That can't be reduced to sex, money, power or social needs. It's its own need.

Friday, December 24, 2010

more bullshit

"He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions."
"When you doubt your powers, you give power to your doubts."
"We are number one! All others are number two, or lower."
- The Sphinx from "Mystery Men"

By now, I should expect bullshit from academics and critics. Maybe I should be charmed by it: "whatchagonnado?" But I'm not. I can't seem to lose my innocence. I assume educators and writers are trying to communicate something that makes sense. Yet when another apple from the nonsense tree bops me on the head, I'm shocked and angered again, as if it was happening to me for the first time.

In this piece on Edward Hopper, Morgan Meis, who "is currently finishing his Ph.D. in philosophy at the New School for Social Research [and] teaches undergraduate philosophy courses at Eugene Lang College and at various other institutions ... throughout the city, including Columbia University," launches into the bullshit almost immediately: "Is he a cliché? That's the question you keep coming back to when you look at the paintings of Edward Hopper." No, it's not. It's not a question I have ever even once asked myself, while looking at any painting by Hopper or anyone else.

There's no such thing as a universal cliché. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" is a cliché to me, as it probably is to most adult English speakers, but to someone who has never heard the phrase before, it's potentially a strong, witty and vivid metaphor. Clichés are subjective. And, as the owner of his subjectivity, each person instantly know if something is cliché to him or not. He may not be comfortable with the word "cliché," but he knows whether something affects him in a visceral way or if it's so blunted that it bounces off him. He's either affected by it or he isn't.

Sometimes I hear people say, "I know that's a cliché, but it still makes me cry." Then it's NOT a cliché -- to you! What you probably mean is this: "I know many people consider it a cliché. But I'm moved by it. And since I know most people aren't -- since I know most people think folks like me are sentimental fools -- I'm embarrassed. I'm ashamed that I'm moved. I hope no one finds out. Or I hope I can figure out some way to prove to everyone that they're wrong -- that it's not a cliché." I wonder if this is Meis's real concern. Is he embarrassed that he likes Hopper paintings?

When he asks, "Is he a cliché? That's the question you keep coming back to when you look at the paintings of Edward Hopper," I wonder what will happen to him when he's finally able to answer the question. If he like Hopper but figures out that, yes, he's cliché, will that knowledge suddenly make him stop liking Hopper? "Big Macs taste terrible!" "Oh, they do? Thanks for clearing that up for me. Now I'll know not to like them any more."

Meis is fond of talking about "you" and "we" when he means -- or should mean -- himself:

"We may have to accept the fact that Hopper painted the sad clown smoking a cigarette in the café because he felt it to be a poignant scene."

"Still, we wonder. Did Hopper stick to his guns for all the right reasons?"

"We know that there is an entire universe of interiority unfolding within that person as she does what she does."

This is such an old bullshit trick, most people probably don't notice it. It's a rhetorical device that's supposed to make a personal observation sound universal: "It's true and you know it's true!" No, I don't. "When we think about our childhood, we yearn for our innocent pasts." No, we don't. Just be honest, Mr. Writer. Write, "When I think about my childhood, I yearn for my innocent past." I know that doesn't sound as profound as a universal statement. And that's because it's not. Sorry. Saying "we" doesn't make it more profound or universal. Just tell the truth, which is about your experience. It might be mine, too. Let me decide. Don't tell me what I think. Or, if you're really brave, try writing things like this: "When we see a small child, we want to pick up an axe and chop her head off."

Of Hopper's painting "Soir Bleu," Meis writes: "We may have to accept the fact that Hopper painted the sad clown smoking a cigarette in the café because he felt it to be a poignant scene. He was so moved by the depressed clown that he went and painted one of the silliest paintings of the era."

Well, I keep looking and looking at the painting, which is not one of my favorites, either, but I'll be damned if I see a depressed clown.

What I see is a clown with a rather neutral expression. He COULD be sad. He could be pensive, bored, concentrating, tired, constipated, whatever. I have absolutely no problem with Meis or any other viewer thinking of the clown as sad. I make up stories about paintings all the time. (I think the Mona Lisa owes me five dollars.) But the clown is not necessarily, universally sad to all viewers. There's no information in the actual painting that forces or urges the viewer to see the clown as sad.

"He didn't want to be an abstract painter. His mind was not blown by Cubism. He did not succumb to the excitement of any avant-garde. How many of us have ever shown that kind of resolution?"

Presumably, any painter who knows about the existence of non-realism and yet continues to paint realistically shows that kind of resolution.

"The fact that so many of Hopper's paintings make good postcards and prints makes the worry about cliché even stronger."

Why is Meis so worried about it? When he looks at Hopper's paintings, what is his actual experience? "Oh, dear... this might be cliché. If it is, what are we going to do?"

"His most famous painting, 'Nighthawks' ..., the one with the people sitting in a diner late at night, has become global kitsch. ...The accessibility and near-universal appeal of that painting, like so much of Hopper, starts to make a person suspicious."

Very, very odd. Meis can't tell, for sure, if something is cliché or not. To him, cliché is a sly trait that an artist can sneak into a painting. You might be innocently enjoying it, not knowing that it's cliché! How embarrassing! Can't you just see all those sophisticated museum-goers, laughing behind your back, while you're standing there, looking at "Nighthawks," with a tear running down your face?

I'm also not sure what near-universal appeal has to do with cliché. Sounds a bit snobbish to me.

Not content with his own nonsense, Meis wheels in Clement Greenberg, "the great American critic of postwar painting and the champion of the Abstract Expressionists," to spout some of his own: "Even though Hopper is a terrible painter, Greenberg famously remarked, he is a great artist."

What does that mean? Hopper makes paintings that move people, but you'd be crazy to hire him to paint your living room?

Then Meis makes this baffling statement (which sounds clever if you don't think about it): "Hopper seems to have been fascinated with the fact that all people can really know about each other are what they show on the surface."

Well, all people CAN know about each other is what they show on the surface -- AND what they say. But since paintings are silent, they always -- the figurative ones, anyway -- only show people's surfaces. This is as true of Davinci's and Carravagio's paintings as it is of Hopper's. It's a really boring, obvious thing to say. Yes, a figurative painting can't show you what someone is thinking, unless it includes a comic-book thought balloon.

"Hopper was dealing with people and places as surface. Everybody is nothing more than what they look like, how they behave. And yet, we know that to be human is to inhabit our own interior, to be in our own head, to feel a million different emotions every day that we never get the chance to express fully, even to ourselves."

Since WE know that humans have inner lives, it sounds like Meis is saying that Hopper doesn't know that -- or doesn't agree with it: "Everybody is nothing more than what they look like, how they behave." How do his paintings convey that idea? Even though I have no idea whether the clown is sad or not, to me, it looks like there's something going on in his head. I assume he has an inner life. So if Hopper's goal was to get me to feel or think the clown is entirely surface, Hopper failed.

"Hopper ... paints individuals of great inner depth with the full knowledge that that inner depth itself can never be painted."

I really hope all painters (and all non-painters) have that same knowledge.

"Because he is painting people as surfaces, he is going to flirt with cliché constantly."

So I guess all figurative painters flirt with cliché constantly. Because they all paint surfaces.

"When he gets it wrong, when he tries to be too evocative, too objective, the whole thing falls apart."

What does "too objective" mean? It sounds like the opposite of "too evocative." It sounds journalistic. But I'm not really sure what "too evocative" means, either.

But maybe I'm guilty of the crimes I'm accusing Meis of committing. Maybe I'm projecting my subjective beliefs onto other people, specifically my belief that it's impossible to paint a realistic picture of someone's inner life. Meis certainly disagrees:

"[Hopper's painting] 'New York Interior' gives us a woman wrapped up in the process of acting and doing and thinking and dreaming all at once. We don't even have the faintest glimpse of what could be going on in her head, where her thoughts have wandered as she sews her dress. But we know that she is going somewhere, mentally, that her thoughts are wandering."

Here's the painting:

Yes, her thoughts may be wondering. Or, as Meis says, contradicting himself, she may be "heavily involved in the process of what looks to be the sewing of a dress ... as she concentrates."

Well, we don't have to debate it. We know for sure that her mind is wondering, because "we know that she is going somewhere, mentally, that her thoughts are wandering. It is in her gesture, in the absent-minded way she pulls the thread."

I'm really trying to see her gesture as "absent-minded," but I just can't. What I see her doing is what someone has to do when sewing by hand -- pulling the needle away from the cloth.

Like me, Meis loves the painting: "It is a great painting because it hovers so very close to being a cliché without ever crossing that line." But we disagree about cliché. I don't think something can be kinda cliché or almost cliché. Cliché-ness is a binary property. Something is either cliché or it's not.

I'm sorry to be so hard on Meis. He's just doing what countless academics do: he's using rhetoric to make vacuous statements sound like profundities, personal feeling sound like universal truths and nonsense sound like logic. He's also trying to express his visceral response to a painting in the form of a logical proposition, and this is an activity generally doomed to failure.

Meis is playing the game. He's playing the game that countless students and teachers and pundits and critics play out many times each day. I am being unfair in that I'm criticizing the player and not the game itself. I'm saying "How dare he make a forward pass," when, in fact, that's what you do when you're playing football. So I'll end by saying this: go to a museum, look at an painting, have an experience. If it affects you, it affects you; if it doesn't, it doesn't. If you have something truly interesting to say about the painting, by all means do so. If you don't, shut up! Don't add more blah blah blah to a river that's already overflowing.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

required classes

Someone emailed me, asking why I am against required classes. Here's my response:

Regarding school, most people are stuck in a mental rut. I was, and it took me years of reading, thinking and debating to claw my way out of it. Thinking clearly about school is like imagining alien life. It's really hard -- impossible? -- to imagine it without picturing human, animal or insect forms. One's mind grasp a few other possibilities (e.g. giant gas clouds), but it's mostly stuck thinking in terrestrial terms. Earth forms are all we know. Worse, Earth forms seem inevitable, as if having-two-eyes is writ into the rules of the universe.

School, for most of us, is like this. We started experiencing the sort of schools we have when we were very, very young, and we went on experiencing them for many years, maybe twenty or more. So when I make a claim that schools should be very different from them way they are, people have a viscerally unpleasant reaction. That's natural. But, if they want to think clearly about education, try should try to figure out why they're uncomfortable. Is it because my idea is bad or is it because I'm rocking a foundational boat? When boats rock, people get seasick.

I get frustrated when people argue about school, because it's usually like hearing people argue about whether Camel Lights or Marlboro Lights are least likely to give you cancer, instead of saying, "Hey, let's just quit smoking."

I hear people fight about whether we should use this textbook or that textbook, but not about whether we should or shouldn't use textbooks at all; they fight about whether kids should be tested via essay questions or multiple-choice problems, but not on whether kids should be tested at all; they argue about whether or not teachers should lecture about Creationism or Evolution, but not about whether lecturing is a useful pedagogical tool; they argue about whether kids should or shouldn't listen to music while they do their homework, but not about whether or not they should be don't homework at all. They argue about whether this or a particular class should be required, but not about whether classes should be required at all.

I'm not suggesting, at least in this paragraph, that we should do away with textbooks, tests and requirements. What saddens me is that people's minds just refuse to explore these foundational questions. For most people, they aren't questions. Of course kids do homework! Homework like the sky or rocks. It just exists, right?

Yet I insist that if we're going to have textbooks, tests, lectures, homework and requirements, we should have them for a good, logical (at best empirical) reason -- not due to inertia, not because they're the defaults.

Because people cling to what they know, when I say, "I don't believe in requirements," they picture their high school, as it was when they went to it, but with no required courses. They picture themselves in sixth grade, all the sudden being told they don't have to do anything they don't want to do. They say, "Oh, man! If I wasn't forced, I would never have learned ANYTHING!" What they're not picturing is a child who has grown up, from preschool, with a totally different sort of experience.

I spent many years working with young children in a daycare center for preschoolers, with a summer program for older kids. So I was with two-through-five-year-olds year round. Then, my students would graduate and move on to public or private elementary schools. But I'd see them during the summers. I saw what school did to them, and it gibed with what I remembered from my own schooling.

Children are born as learning machines. No one has to force them to learn. They have a drive to do it that is at least as strong as the sex drive in adults. Then, gradually, school beats it out of them. School teaches them that learning is work, not fun -- that learning is something you do at someone else's pace, not your pace. Gradually, most kids forget that they used to love to learn. As adults, all they can remember is the school sort of learning, the forced sort. They know it was painful, but they value what they got out of it. They can't imagine it not being painful (because they can't remember their early childhood), so they naturally assume this is important, worthwhile pain, and that the alternative is ignorance.

I also spent years teaching adults. I taught computer classes to people whose companies were forcing them to use computers. They always said the same thing: "I'm not a computer person. I just don't get this stuff." What I learned, from talking to them and observing them in their workplaces (and, frankly, from talking to my family and friends) was this: these people didn't have trouble with computers; they have trouble with learning anything new, because they haven't had to do that in years. They "aren't computer people" because it just so happens that computers are the only things they've been forced to learn as adults.

Most professional people work from rote. Even highly skilled professionals, such as GP Doctors and non-trial lawyers. They learn their skills to the point where them becomes automatic, freeing them up so they can get a paycheck by just going through motions.

I now make my living as a computer programmer. Every day DOES involve some real problem solving, but about 80% of my work is just plugging in boilerplate solutions. Many of these are solutions that "laypeople" couldn't employ, which is what makes me highly skilled. Still, once I worked them out for the first time, it took no skill to employ them a second or third time.

Most adults do little learning or problem-solving at work, and when they get home, they watch TV, talk to their friends and family about light-hearted, unchallenging stuff, do mindless chores and go to bed. What they don't do is read Shakespeare plays for fun, do math problems for fun, learn foreign languages for fun, etc. Why not? What happened to that LUST for learning they had as kids?

It's possibly that this desire naturally falls away from people as they get older, but I don't believe it. It's telling that kids who didn't go through traditional schooling -- kids that were allowed to keep learning in a natural way, following their own instincts -- tend to never lose this lust. In their 80s, they are still challenging themselves, for no other reason than because it's the most fun they can possibly have. So I believe that the reason most people stop learning (when they don't have to) is that school teaches them to associate learning with pain, boredom and forced labor.

By the time a kid is halfway through elementary school, the damage is already done. It only takes a couple of years to replace "learning is something I naturally do and love to do" with "learning is something I have to be forced to do," so of course people wind up thinking, "Thank God Mrs. Wilson forced me to learn grammar! If she hadn't, I never would have!" They're right. They're right because school turned them into that sort of person.

"If we didn't require people to learn to read, some of them would never learn!" That's the most common objection to dropping requirements, so let me address it.

First of all, note that we don't force people to learn to read. In fact, it's impossible to force anyone to learn anything. What we do -- when we require certain subjects -- is to force kids to go to classes. We force them to spend a certain amount of time in certain rooms with certain teachers. If doing that doesn't end up with a particular kid learning to read, we shrug and say, "Well, we did our best." A lot of the reason we force kids it to absolve ourselves. "Hey, we tried!"

Note that whatever we do, a certain number of kids (because they don't pay attention or "apply themselves") will not learn. A certain number will not learn if we have requirements; a certain number will not learn if we don't have requirements.

So the issue shouldn't be "if we don't have requirements, some kids won't choose to learn to read." The issue should be (a) what will produce MORE literate kids, a system with requirements or a system without it, and (b) what will produce more kids who have a lifetime LOVE of reading, a system with requirements or a system without it?

The truth is, no one wants to be illiterate. By the time a kid is eight (or perhaps younger), he already is very upset if he can't read. Our culture is full of things that need to be read. So naturally everyone want to be able to understand those things. It's not that people don't want to read: it's that people don't want to go through the pain of learning to read. If we took the pain away and said, "Hey, learn when you want to -- here are the resources," most people would learn.

"Here are the good resources" is key. If we're going to drop requirements, we also have to drop boring, incompetant teachers. We have to put kids in environments full of rich materials, full of lusty art and enticing scientifi experienets. We need teachers who ratiate enthusiasm. We need a world that says, "No one is going to force you to go to the really fun party if you don't want to." Which is why dropping requirements won't work in a standard elementary school or high school. Of COURSE kids won't choose to go to Mr. Boring's Algebra class or Mrs. Nasty's English class!

You asked about books that turned me on to this way of thinking. The main one was "Summerhill" by A. S. Neill.

Warning: it was written in 1960, and it contains some offensive (e.g. sexist, homophobic) writing that was a product of the way many people thought at the time. (Though I linked to an "updated" edition, so maybe that stuff has been removed.) If you read it, I urge you to try to look past that crap to the ideas underneath.

Summerhill was (maybe "is." I don't know if it still exists) a school in England -- elementary-through-high-school -- with no requirements. Kids weren't even required to go to class. That's right, they could run around outside all day if they wanted to. No on forced them to do anything.

The result? Most of them -- almost all of them -- chose to go to class. When kids transfered there from other schools, naturally they said, "No one's going to make me go to class? SWEET!" And they spent a couple of months goofing off. Then they got bored, got the rebellion of of their systems, and started going to class.

The school produced many successful people.

I don't expect you to come to the same conclusion as me about this subject. But I am thrilled it's something you're thinking about.