the preferences of others

This is about a change of course, paradigmatic, in which people move from being directed by inner assuredness to being manipulated by external influence and whim.  Ironically, because one would assume that an outward look would be motivated by selflessness, both are firmly rooted in self love.  The ratios are revealing:  that production is self-reliance and consumption is skittish, and getting worse.

Half a century ago, Yale University Press published the first edition of ”The Lonely Crowd,” by David Riesman with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. The book’s subject was nothing less than a sea change in American character: as America was moving from a society governed by the imperative of production to a society governed by the imperative of consumption, the character of its upper middle classes was shifting from ”inner-directed” people who as children formed goals that would guide them in later life to ”other-directed” people, ”sensitized to the expectations and preferences of others.” In Riesman’s metaphor, the shift was from life guided by an internal gyroscope to life guided by radar. The new American no longer cared much about adult authority but rather was hyperalert to peer groups and gripped by mass media. Father might know best, but if he did, it was increasingly because a television program said so.

The book went on to become, according to a 1997 study by Herbert J. Gans, the best-selling book by a sociologist in American history, with 1.4 million copies sold, largely in paperback editions. For years, the book made ”inner-direction” and ”other-direction” household terms, canapes for cocktail party chat. It was read by student radicals in the making, who overinterpreted its embrace of the search for autonomy as a roundhouse assault on conformity, when in fact Riesman was at pains to point out that any society ”ensures some degree of conformity from the individuals who make it up,” the question being how it secures that unavoidable conformity. In the 1960’s, ”The Lonely Crowd” was read as a harbinger of alienation leading to affluent revolt. Its title phrase even cropped up in a Bob Dylan song of 1967, ”I Shall Be Released.” By the time of his introduction to the 1969 edition, Riesman was regretting that ” ‘The Lonely Crowd’ contributed to the snobbish deprecation of business careers.”

~BOOKEND / By TODD GITLIN, How Our Crowd Got Lonely

one-seventieth the cash

You can have high literacy, life expectancy, and a low birth rate for 1/70th what we pay.  How do I know?  Because it’s been done, in Kerala, South India.  So there is no correlation between money and a good life, at least not a life as defined by these indicators.  And 70 times more money means 70 times more consumption, which makes us gluttons in extremis, and, according to McKibben, a vastly less successful society.

Kerala (pronounced ker’uh luh) , a state of 29 million people in southern India, is poor–even for India–with a per capita income estimated by various surveys to be between $298 and $350 a year, about one-seventieth the American average. When the American anthropologist Richard Franke surveyed the typical Keralite village of Nadur in the late 1980s, he found that nearly half the 170 families had only cooking utensils, a wooden bench, and a few stools in their homes. No beds–that was the sum of their possessions. Thirty-six percent also had some chairs and cots, and 19 percent owned a table. In five households he discovered cushioned seats. But here is the odd part.

The life expectancy for a North American male, with all his chairs and cushions, is 72 years, while the life expectancy for a Keralite male is 70.

After the latest in a long series of literacy campaigns, the United Nations in 1991 certified Kerala as 100 percent literate. Your chances of having an informed conversation are at least as high in Kerala as in Kansas.

Kerala’s birth rate hovers near 18 per thousand, compared with 16 per thousand in the United States –and is falling faster.

Demographically, in other words, Kerala mirrors the United States on about one-seventieth the cash. It has problems, of course: There is chronic unemployment, a stagnant economy that may have trouble coping with world markets, and a budget deficit that is often described as out of control. But these are the kinds of problems you find in France. Kerala utterly lacks the squalid drama of the Third World –the beggars reaching through the car window, the children with distended bellies, the baby girls left to die.


It is, in other words, weird–like one of those places where the starship Enterprise might land that superficially resembles Earth but is slightly off. It undercuts maxims about the world we consider almost intuitive: Rich people are healthier, rich people live longer, rich people have more opportunity for education, rich people have fewer children. We know all these things to be true–and yet here is a countercase, a demographic suddenly rising on our mental atlas. It’s as if someone demonstrated in a lab that flame didn’t necessarily need oxygen, or that water could freeze at 60 degrees. It demands a new chemistry to explain it, a whole new science.


Gross national product is often used as a synonym for achievement, but it is also an eloquent shorthand for gallons of gasoline burned, stacks of garbage tossed out, quantities of timber sawn into boards. One recent calculation showed that for every American dollar or its equivalent spent anywhere on earth, half a liter of oil was consumed in producing, packaging, and shipping the goods. One-seventieth the income means one-seventieth the damage to the planet. So, on balance, if Kerala and the United States manage to achieve the same physical quality of life, Kerala is the vastly more successful society. Which is not to say that we could ever live on as little as they do–or, indeed, that they should. The right point is clearly somewhere in between.

~What is True Development? The Kerala Model by Bill McKibben

the narcissistic ties of blood
May 17, 2008, 1:04 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

Ah, how I loathe the culture wars.  We are walking out of a battle field now, one on which the definitions of family were ravaged.  Here is a clearer view.

The prevailing orthodoxy claims that family is foundational to good society and living.  They emphasize blood lines and values and remove their kids from public schools.  It is a loving inward gaze.

The alternate view is that such self love can lead to territoriality and fear of the outsider. And it seems that when asked, most people believe that family values means looking beyond the family.  Maybe that’s what loving your neighbour is: that to really love, we must look past ourselves, our bloodlines, our tribe, and try to understand and love ‘other’ people.

Salon-The U.S. News article cited a 1997 poll in which 75 percent of 950 adults said moms with kids under 3 who work outside the home are threatening family values.

Coontz-You know these polls change from day to day depending on how they’re phrased. If you phrase the question, “Are women who work neglecting their kids?” the overwhelming majority will say no. In many cases, because it is the only vocabulary people have to express their concern, they’ll use the conservative term “family values,” but when you press people on what they mean by that, they’ll define it in a totally different way than the right wing does. The public defines it in terms of teaching your kids to look beyond the family. They define it in terms of reaching out to get involved in community activities. Whereas the right-wing definition of family values is extraordinarily narrow — even in terms of the history of Christianity. Christ was quite anti-family. He said that family bonds can interfere with your commitment to the larger Christian community. And the early evangelicals took pains to always talk about the Christian household, to indicate that you had to reach beyond the narrow, selfish ties of sexual attraction and the narcissistic ties of blood in order to look out for the larger community.

May 20, 1997, “Christ was quite anti-family”, STEPHANIE COONTZ ON THE WAY WE WEREN’T — AND ARE,

May 14, 2008, 12:06 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,

Here’s some light reading on one of my favorite pursuits.  I suppose you thought that cup of brown you slurp every morning is little more than the buzz you get.  Or, for the hardcore drinker, the chemical you need to keep from slumping over your desk after lunch.  How naïve!  Mental slavery!  As we will see, its much more than that.

Here, there are two arguments — imagine arguing over coffee!  One is that capitalism-pushers and puritans propagandized the use of coffee to wire us up.  The other is that the coffee house is the glorious space that is left after the entanglements of family, society and government are cleared out of the room.

At first these two images appear to cancel each other out:  one occupies the world of desk-slavery and high! profit! margins! and the other slums it with really smart guys with white beards who can’t dress themselves.  But coffee probably does both things:  is the soma drug of choice for the prevailing system of work-gluttony (must work! more work!) and the catalyzer for speaking freely in a smoky room.

Historians of stimulants have tried to invest coffee with characteristics that would explain its agreeability to the bourgeoisie. Coffee does not contain alcohol and can easily be promoted as its antidote, as a means to maintain energetic sobriety and keep working, a disposition in line with the ascetic ethos of the agents of early capitalism.  There is no shortage of advertising material from the period to support such a view. Drawing on puritan coffee propaganda, the historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch asserts that, with coffee, rationalism entered the physiology of man.  Its somatic effects associate it with the exhortation to constant alertness and activity.  However, to Habermas, the chemical constituents and invigorating effect of coffee do not play any overt role in the constitution of the public sphere. As a thinker with Marxist allegiances, he avoids the fetishism that seems to inhere in the genre of commodity histories, in which objects of consumption take on unexpected powers and become protagonists in adventurous narratives.  Yet no Marxist would believe that social relations can be neatly disentangled from commodity capitalism. According to Habermas, bourgeois individuals are able to enter into novel kinds of relationships with one another in the coffeehouse because the links between family, civil society, and the state are restructured under capitalist conditions.

~Coffee and Civilization, Scott Horton, Harpers Magazine, 2007

we bore him away
May 12, 2008, 7:32 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,

“Blithe was the morning of his burial, with bird and song and sweet-smelling flowers. The trees whispered to the grass, but the children sat with hushed faces. And yet it seemed a ghostly unreal day,—the wraith of Life. We seemed to rumble down an unknown street behind a little white bundle of posies, with the shadow of a song in our ears. The busy city dinned about us; they did not say much, those pale-faced hurrying men and women; they did not say much,—they only glanced and said, “Niggers!”

We could not lay him in the ground there in Georgia, for the earth there is strangely red; so we bore him away to the northward, with his flowers and his little folded hands. In vain, in vain!—for where, O God! beneath thy broad blue sky shall my dark baby rest in peace,—where Reverence dwells, and Goodness, and a Freedom that is free?”

~from W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in which he describes the Atlanta funeral procession of his infant son

safe at home
May 10, 2008, 6:32 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , , , ,

(haris panidis | saeco etienne coffee maker | electra coffee machine)

In this piece, the middle class, after having been harangued by Luther for their pursuit of comfort and sensuality, turn to the drawing room and its rituals of pleasure-without-risk, including the drinking of coffee.  It is at home where risk is erased.  The theorist Schmitt criticizes the middleclass for leaving broader social life and retreating into family life.  This life turned inward may be comfortable, but is marked by fear of the world outside and aversion to conflict.  In it, mother’s tut-tutting isn’t merely corrective; it’s sinister.

“In a note in his acrimonious postwar glossary, the legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt captures the stale atmosphere of the bourgeois interior, and points to coffee as a symbol of the desire to enjoy undisturbed security within the confines of the household:

“French: sécurité; German (until now): Gemütlichkeit. That is the internalized – or interiorized – but at the same time secularized assurance of divine grace, the end of fear and trembling at a nice cup of coffee and a pipe stuffed with spicy tobacco. It is the reappearance of well-concealed sensual enjoyment, after Luther and the Moravians raged against security as the actual form of sensuality.”

In Schmitt’s view, the typical bourgeois philistine, unmistakably portrayed in his entry, is not so much ascetically opposed to pleasure as he is wary of pleasure that cannot be enjoyed securely – that is – without worry. Coffee, in combination with tobacco, stands for intoxication without risk; it is a stimulant that does not dangerously loosen the subject’s self-possession. It signifies a furtive bliss distinguished from the ecstatic, which implies a movement transcending the bounded ego lodged in the safety of plush comfort.Yet the note contains a more far-reaching critique. Schmitt contends that the comfortable life in the bourgeois interior, despite its mundane and modest quality, seduces men into a sinful attachment to worldly enjoyment. The sinfulness resides in the pursuit of security: the will to achieve a state of complete safety in the shielded salon betrays a blasphemous belief in the possibility of a man-made utopia.

Schmitt’s diary entry might come across as a peculiar expression of a severe Christian ethos, but he joins a long line of critics of the bourgeoisie, who fault it for its incapacity to appreciate a community that extends beyond the realm of the family. The bourgeois individual typically believes that his real life plays out in the private sphere, and perceives the outside world as a foreign and dangerous territory. To the extent that the bourgeoisie does act politically, however, it continues to be guided by the desire for security nurtured in the home, and its ambition is to turn the world into a calm interior. To the bourgeoisie, conflict rudely disturbs the continual traffic of discourse – it should simply not take place. At this point, the bourgeois host’s call for the re-establishment of placid conversation – Nur immer gemütlich! or “Temper! Temper!” – sounds increasingly sinister.”

No Coffee by Jakob Norberg from Eurozine

half remembered
May 7, 2008, 12:53 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , ,

Eithne Jordan
Peripheral Landscapes

“The images have a curious half-remembered or imagined quality which has an unsettling but very satisfying effect, like empty stage sets or movie stills poised and prepared for human activity or abandoned and discarded after use. This is a measure of the extent to which the subjects are merely a formal device for the artist to explore form, composition and perspective. The industrial zones and urban environments, melancholy spaces inhabited only by objects or machines, arise directly out of the Still Life paintings. They are, in one sense, giant still lives depicting monumental shapes in the landscape. In another sense they do audit the aesthetic of the world we inhabit, the motorways, garages and warehouses that serve our needs and become a passive part of our visual consciousness.”

~Galway Arts Centre,