Symbol Drain

July 14, 2014 Leave a comment

Just as Nixon drained the symbolic power of the two-finger peace salute, figures who embrace the symbols crafted to criticize them quickly drain symbolic power. Symbols are, by definition, an object that represents something else. They are stand-ins for bigger ideas. The peace salute, the red ribbon or the complicated matrix of patriotic emblems all work to represent a larger idea or cause. Groups utilize symbols to simplify a message and create a stamp from which to mark their work. Need to make a statement quickly or refute some absurd state? The symbol is the best bet.

And while symbols hold great meaning, their power is easily drained and erased by imitation. Embraced by one who misrepresents the cause creates a static of understanding. Dilute the message and the message is defeated. For groups who seek to eliminate their opposition the keenest tactic is to not parody the other sides imagery but instead embrace it and redefine it for their own.

Herein lies the danger of the symbol’s simplicity. While powerful and direct, the symbol’s power comes only from its lack of complicated detail. By removing detail and nuance the audience does not fully receive the ideas behind the idea. It is far easier to simply stick the decal on the car or wave the random banner. Strength in numbers, yes, but once a symbol becomes common fare its power is depleted. View the countless decals of the numbers 13.1 and one begins to be less impressed by one’s bragging of athletic prowess. One must be careful when using symbols: powerful when limited but easily depleted, our symbols are less our greatest bullets and more a sharpened jab to the brain. We may strike with solid fervor but with every continued strike the punch becomes better known and the opposition’s ability to counterattack or even disregard becomes all the more easy.

Ethical Generic?

July 14, 2014 1 comment

A scientist who toils towards progress works with intellectual property rights by her side. Knowing that her great discovery will be protected so that the organization she works for can profit and further fund discoveries allows her to absorb additional costs. In essence, greater risk allows for greater reward if a major breakthrough is found. Medical companies often cite these protections as essential components to their work: by profiting from a drug like Viagra, Pfizer can work towards medications for highly puzzling yet unknown diseases. Is the road towards the cure for cancer paved in prescriptions for Viagra or Botox?

These controls over intellectual property are not eternal. Depending on the industry the law declares a certain amount of time for protection to exist. Once extinguished the “secret sauce” is revealed and other companies can create their own forms of the drug. This gives way to the wave of generic forms that are far more affordable. And yet despite the benefits of more people having access to these medications one wonders whether longer extensions of protections might give way to faster discoveries of solution to our most horrible conditions.

Might eternal patent protection be better? Is it unethical to buy generic because in doing so we deny the “creator’s work” from receiving compensation? On strays away from this conclusion when details of profit are considered. Pharmaceutical companies are far from destitute and continue to discover important medications in spite of the loss of protection.

In the end, its humanity that charges forward. Despite the global spread of workers dedicated to finding solutions for a multitude of companies each works towards the common goal of fixing human ills. No matter the politics or legal details the scientists who toil towards progress do so not for their companies well being but for the unending war against our ills. Each battles for a better tomorrow and despite the details that come between progress and profit a greater tomorrow comes only by the grace of the brains and brawn of those concerned.

Consensus Conversations

June 20, 2014 Leave a comment

While cultural values vary from community to community, it is society’s role to facilitate discussion and enforcement. Varied and wide-ranging, the perspectives we hold stem from numerous sources.

Perhaps a religious group believes in varied rights between the genders, or another feels that certain foods should not be eaten. These are real examples from our society that we allow to exist and often celebrate as unique features of the group. Of the Amish or other orthodox communities we recognize a unique way of living and see their existence as a sign that we live in a rational and fair society. Only tyrants squash any sense of “other.”

Who is to say that one group’s ideas are better than another? As a society we collectively discuss the varied ideas and come to a consensus about ideal rules. Such “universal values” come as products of consensus. We allow for massive differences and yet work to make sense of the diversity. What is best for the group is not decided by a specific person; instead it is a concept determined by a massive conversation. One of our greatest accomplishment as a society is this allowance for diversity.

Rooted Rewards

June 16, 2014 Leave a comment

The tingling of success at having accomplish something often inspires the very act itself. We do the chore because when finished we’ll feel better. Bit the bullet; take the ride: its in the completion that the pleasure kicks in. One wonders where such sensations come from. Are these feelings baked into our minds or are we educated early in life to feel these things? When we finish a book we feel we’ve done something, we’ve accomplished a task. But have we? Perhaps the challenge is the source of our joy: in being tasked with a chore we can succeed or fail. Read the book or give up; understand or completely be confused. Do we conquer a text when we read it? Is the author’s work to challenge us and our success in having flaunted her attempt?

In childhood there are many attempts to inculcate good behavior. Often classified as “carrots” these are benefits that stem from good behavior. The candy after “being good” or provision of a favorite food after academic success. Contrasted with these are actions often classified as “sticks”- the punishments for bad behavior. No matter one’s style, both carrots and sticks are designed to influence behavior on multiple fronts. To both cease the current bad behavior and encourage better, future behavior. Is this where we can locate our sense of success? Is the satisfaction following the completion of a symptom of these programs? Rewarded with a coupon for a free pizza, the young child participates in the Pizza Hut’s Book-It program and somewhere finds the drive to read another book. Sly or just great marketing. Whose the victor in this books-for-pizza-pie gimmick? One might answer the society.

Incentives are the roots to our behavior. Often we consider these incentives obvious and clear. But what if we can’t actually trace these incentives? What if these powerful drives are so baked in or rooted in our early development that our current mind doesn’t really know them at work? Perhaps the evidence of these “buried incentives” comes in our failure to meet them. Guilt, shame and embarrassment are sour reminders or personal failings. Steal the candy bar from the store? Fail to return the library book on time or buy generic when name brand was desired? Minor crimes, of course, but ones that often inspire deeper emotional responses. Might we find the clues to our incentives buried in our failures? Maybe the most profound experiences of guilt reveal less about who we are and more about the hidden, buried drives that run our brains and soul.

Insulate and Celebrate

June 3, 2014 Leave a comment

In 2010, the documentary “I’m Still Here” purported to show the retirement of actor Joaquin Phoenix. In the film he is shown using drugs, ordering prostitutes and experimenting with a career in rap. Though later disclosed as a hoax or work of “performance art”, the film does display a grandiosity of self-flagellation that celebrity works so well to insulate. Despite his seemingly mental instability, Phoenix remains supported by his friends and in fact enabled by those around him.

“I’m Still Here” seems less about objective documentation and more interested in both mockery and celebration. Phoenix is the fool but one whose artistic drive takes place regardless of popular perspective. He is an actor poised for greater success but seemingly determined to look away. Is he angry with his success? Does it somehow suffocate his artistic sensibilities? Though never answered, the film displays one (fake) attempt at carving out a new artistic life in the shell of one already existing.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy displayed in this film is the hemmed in status of the actor. No matter his intentions, the public refuses to actually believe in Phoenix’s decision. Existing as a film star, the public’s definition of him seems locked in this identity. Would he be able to change careers if he was interested or is such a radical change of life impossible? Does one abandon identity with celebrity? Much remains unanswered in the film and despite its “mockumentary” status and post-production explanation as an act of humor or performance art, much remains uncertain. Is this mockery a reality and perhaps a glimpse into the shallow world we celebrate? Wherein lies the parody when such antics are both allowed to occur and celebrated by the public?

Perils of Purchase

May 22, 2014 Leave a comment

A magical thing happens when we own something. Having made the purchase using our own money we’ve personalized the experience. This is why the computer from the employer is “junk” and why the dinner from a different cook just doesn’t taste the same. When we do it ourselves we place our skin in the game: we personalize the experience or item by connecting to who we are. Our purchases are extensions of who we are: they demonstrate a decision we have made or a preference that reflects who we are. Marketers know we do this and utilize brands as extensions of personality. Are you a Pepsi or a Coke person? Is it Apple or PC, Android or iOS?

Falling victim to the game of branding creates a paradox of experience. Though trying to express our individuality in our purchases we end up subscribing to massively popular brands. We work to select the item that best reflects our personality or that most closely matches our perspectives on life. A certain type of character is connected to brands. Technology companies are particularly skilled at creating cultural connections for its users. Are you an “Apple person”, the ad might seem to suggest. Ultimately our attempts to be unique leave us blandly like the rest. The only way to truly be unique is to build it all ourselves. Program your own operating system and manufacture the hardware in the basement. Work to escape the brands and perhaps you can be unique. Of course this is impossible. Brands are popular because they’re easy to engage with and embrace.

Of “Nostalgic Spasms”

May 21, 2014 Leave a comment

In Taming Lust, a brief study of the prosecution of bestiality in early America, Doron S. Ben-Atar uses the phrase “nostalgic spasm” to refer to a sudden shift in social norms that looks back in light of changes. Such “spasms” come in times of social change, he suggests, and demonstrates with his book how in moments of social change an older generation can grasp its power in a last-ditch attempt to stop oncoming change. It is a process we see repeated throughout history: moments of social shift occurring but only after actions of incredible bigotry and cruelty. With each change in social perspective an old view is tossed away.

Critical to these shifts are the individuals involved in making new ideas reality. Too often we look only at the actors involved with the winning side. History is, they say, written by the victors and such limited consideration is evidence of its truth. Who creates the change? Both the actors whose new ideas become enacted and the losers whose old, out-dated ideas are discarded.

In changing our social norms we look away from old ideas. In transitioning to new ideas we discard old views and shift power from those who held these views to those with new ideas. Abstraction may lead us to only view these changes from the perspective of the idea: the women’s right to vote became enacted or civil rights were extended to African-Americans. Changes, yes, but abstract ideas that only become reality when people work (and often die) to make them reality. Human beings move ideas from abstract ideas to actual policy.

Often people claim an “evolution” of thought with new ideas. The right for same-sex couples to marry is a contemporary issue where people often cite an “evolution of perspective” in explaining their delay in drawing conclusions. President Obama is one individual who has cited such evolutions. Herein is the older generation gradually coming to terms with new ideas. For some this evolution is difficult, but for others its simply too much. For those whose perspectives cannot accommodate a change in norms the “nostalgic spasm” might seem critical. Rapid action to block a social change often occur in areas where values are deeply embedded in the community. Severe punishments for crimes typically treated less severely or the creation of new, more strict rules and punishments reveal the spasm in action. Moral panic might explain their actions, but in their works we see both reaction and change. Though their fight to keep things the same hurts many, time cannot control the change. Unfortunately our greatest social changes come with painful baggage. Before we have great change we have the panic of the powerful whose last grasp for power provides them with the ability to instill a brief, painful period of suffering. Such actions are dual symbols: the older power fading and the dawning of the new ideas to come.

 

 

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