waste of the world
September 13, 2015, 1:57 pm
Filed under: chronotopes, departure lounge | Tags: , , , , ,

Italo Calvino describes his mother’s domesticity and his father’s passion: struggles with ourselves and with the world.

His mother turned passions into mere duties, her strategy for quotidian domestic life: sure, methodical, hardworking. His father on the other hand embraced passion, altruism, innovation, pain of existence, a desperate confrontation with the world.

That life is partly waste was something my mother would not accept: I mean that it is partly passion. Hence she never left the garden where every plant was labelled, the house swathed in bougainvillea, the study with its herbariums and the microscope under the glass dome. Always sure of herself, methodical, she transformed passions into duties and lived on those. But what pushed my father up the road to San Giovanni every morning – and me downwards along my own road – was not so much the duty of the hardworking landowner, the altruism of the agricultural innovator – and in my case not so much those definitions of duty that I would gradually impose on myself – but passion, fierce passion, pain of existence – what else could have forced him to scramble up through woods and wilderness and me to plunge into a labyrinth of walls and printed paper? – desperate confrontation with that which lies outside of ourselves, waste of self set against the waste of the world in general.

The Road to San Giovanni, Italo Calvino

non zero sum game

You can win and lose in music or cooking, as crazy as that seems. In order to win, others must lose, in the American way, developed by the emotionally stunted, and everyone takes the risk of losing in the belief that someday there will be a big win. Of course there never is.

For Thomas Hobbes social existence was a war of all against all, zero sum. For him competition is an ideal not a problem.

But there is also the cooperative paradigm, the non zero sum game, in which the rising tide floats all boats. It enables strength, sustainable lives, health, freedom.

From Benjamin Barber:

It is much the same with entertainment. Our most successful shows, themselves in a competition for survival with one another (sweeps week!), pit ­on-­camera competitors against one another in contests only one can win. The eponymous show Survivor is the Darwinian prototype, but the principle rules on all the “reality” shows. On American Idol, singing is the excuse but winning the real aim. In the winners’ world of television, nothing is what it seems. Top Chef is not about excellence or variety in cooking, but about winning and losing. Project Runway turns a pluralistic fashion industry that caters to many tastes into a race (with clocks and time limits) in which there is but one winner. The competitive culture hypes winners but is equally (more?) fascinated with losers. “It is not enough that I win,” proclaims the ­hubris-­driven American competitor, “others must lose.” And Americans have shown themselves ready to become big losers in order to be eligible to become big ­winners—­however remote the odds. We are a nation of gamblers willing to tolerate radical income inequality and a large class of losers (into which we willingly risk being shunted) for the chance to ­win.

That tension is hard to maintain, however. The two modes of being inevitably become the source of rival theories of politics and society and, as a consequence, two distinctive approaches to human identity. When we contemplate nature as a kind of parody of human warfare and anarchy, as Thomas Hobbes did, our social existence becomes a “war of all against all.” According to this model, we live in a ­“zero-­sum” world where one man’s victory must be another man’s defeat. We either have to sacrifice our liberty to secure tranquility or live well through rivalry and conquest. The price of attenuating competition is always high, even when it is deemed necessary for survival (as posited by social contract theory). In our very impetus to move, this view argues, we cannot help but collide with others. In collision, we cannot help but experience others as limits on our own freedom. The preservation of freedom demands competition, while any restraint at all on competition, even mere civility, becomes an unfortunate limit on ­liberty.

This celebration of radical competition has, of course, been contested by theorists such as ­Jean-­Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, and John Dewey, who have treated competition more as a problem or pathology to be overcome than an ideal to be realized. In the cooperative paradigm, the world is understood to be a ­non–zero-­sum game in which we can win by helping others win. We are psychic as well as material beings and can ­co­exist in common space with similar beings, even become stronger by doing so. Mutual aid and common ground are extensions of our common being and make possible healthy and sustainable lives. Freedom becomes a feature of our cooperative interaction with others rather than a symbol of our rivalry with or independence of them. We are free not when unconstrained but under constraints and norms we choose for ourselves. And we are free together, not ­alone.

The Lost Art of Cooperation by Benjamin Barber