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Posts Tagged ‘thinking’

Action is Not Progress

January 24, 2014 Leave a comment

We often mistake action for progress. Spin the wheels and chase the tail: it all feels like we’re getting somewhere, but driving the car around the cul-de-sac and swimming laps inside a pool is simply simulation. For endeavors where a change is needed we need to do something more, something harder, to reach the goals we sense we have.

A disconnect between knowing what we need and doing what needs to be done is often where we fall. Emotion muddies the water and rapidly our confident sense of action becomes shriveled to inaction. In the corner hides the shrunken dreams of a warrior that was.

Perhaps we might measure leaders by their ability to disregard their doubts. For those who can charge forward a great existence lingers. Of course this charge is relative as both evil and angels achieve power in such striving. For every hero is a Hitler.

For many this feeling of doing something is enough. A constant stream of attempts might feel like actual effort but until we actually face the facts and fight the war we’re merely playing games. Impressively skilled at complicating our existence, we each possess the equally tragic and impressive ability of doubting what we want and sabotaging effort.

Artistic Picks

December 23, 2013 Leave a comment

To assert one’s identity is to re-assert and codify identity politics. Why was one selected for this position? What qualifications garnered the individual with the opportunity? In moments of competition literally person versus people- the factors that are used to make a decision are more important than the decision itself. Yes, the ways you decide are far more important than what you decide.

To provide one with an opportunity on the basis of identity is to disregard or discount skills unrelated to identity. A great artist is judged not by background, heritage or culture; instead, it is the work itself that persists through the ages. Art outlasts the artist. Contemporary culture has moments where background, heritage, or culture trump artistic skill. In these situations the artist’s work is not the major focus; instead, we ask where did she come from? Who or what does she love? Or, worse yet, how can her selection say something about who we are?

All decisions are expressions of the deciders. President George H.W. Bush is often quoted as saying he “is the decider” when challenged that his vice president Dick Cheney was actually in charge. We treasure our authority and use it explain who we are. In selecting someone we express a preference for perspective. Selections are symbols and in decisions where people are involved (i.e., artistic nomination) symbolic stand-ins for our beliefs.

Nominations of artists are particularly interesting on a meta level. Artists often work with symbols and manipulate meaning. One who nominates an artist for a position is manipulating symbolic manipulators to manipulate a symbol.

Relative Success

November 14, 2013 Leave a comment

When a child yells, “I’ll be the greatest ever,” a parent might grin and pat her on the back and work to further an encouragement. And yet, while noble and respectable, much remains unsaid in such a statement. The greatest what? Certainly the greatest mob boss, terrorist or pornographer and what the parent had in mind. Success is relative and our notions of what defines it based on culture and the social norms within it.

Success is measured in many ways. Robin Hanson argues in this podcast that the ability to control is one of the most common. In our need to demonstrate our ability to control other people we invest significant amounts of time and energy. Minor tasks like picking what to eat or what to wear function less as decisions of detail and more as minor battles won in a war of control.

Worse yet is our tendency to measure the success of others via our own sense of success. A child might possess musical skills destined to make him the greatest rock guitarist of all time but what becomes of him if he is born to a great politician? Might a mother whose daughter shows signs of immense interest in baseball steer her otherwise for fear of some social stigma? How does a parent’s need to be perceived by others lead to manipulation and delusion of children. Many parents would likely shudder at the idea of their child becoming a gifted artist in some lewd activity. While many desire their child to have power, money and happiness they do with exception. Success is counted sweetest but only in some ways. Better to be poor and normal than successful in some weirdo way.

Relationship Comparatives

November 8, 2013 Leave a comment

What defines a quality relationship? Realistic expectations, quality communication and respect are just three commonly accepted expectations. One’s list, while highly personal, ultimately boils down to equality and respect. We might supply the analogy of a balance to illustrate the idea for a quality relationships.

Paradoxically, we best understand quality relationships by our experience with bad ones. From our nightmares come our sense of peace as often bad begets our sense of good. What is evil if not the direct opposite of good. Does not greater evil demand a greater sense of heroism? We are locked, it seems, in an endless game of cognitive leap frog.

If a quality relationship can be understood and its features stated, we can use this list to evaluate other relationships in life. What is the state of one’s relationship to food? How might one consider his/her relationship to charity or employment? Consider the features of a bad boyfriend: obsessive, indifferent to rational emotions and blind to common needs. Might these same features be used to evaluate one’s relationship to food? Does an eating disorder not treat its object (food) with the lack of concern?

By considering the ways we relate to other people and the expectations that guide our interactions we gain a useful tool for other applications. How should one interact with others? Branch beyond these human-to-human expectations and apply them elsewhere. How do we treat these other objects? Too much time at work? Obsessive compulsion towards a diet? Perhaps we gain a sense of balance by these considerations and learn from common social standards how we might best behave with that which surrounds our daily life.

Staling Aura

November 2, 2013 Leave a comment

Let me play a recording from 1961. Will you know its not from 1991? Assume you do not see me drop the vinyl on the record player or thrust the VHS into the VCR- would you know the era of the work of art? Certain arts are dated by the medium of production. A recording from the 1960s sounds like its from the 1960s. You can see the age of movies in their very nature. Though the story line is common, the date of a production informs our reading of a text, film, or song.

Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” considers our relation to art when it can be copied. If the gift shop sells a post card of The Mona Lisa, can we just skip the original and hit the cafe? Benjamin thinks not- he asserts an “aura” surrounds the original. An initial creation exists as something more than just an object. A painting is more than just some paint on canvas or the ideas suggested in the medium’s arrangement. The work is many things: a document of artistic creation? A historical document or record? This list is truly endless: art can be anything and everything.

Despite this ambiguous existence the work of art itself suffers from its means of creation. Media decays and technology evolves to place a work of art in history. As the work ages we gain a sense of how old it is. When the painting falls to shreds does Benjamin’s suggested “aura” become depleted? The Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC displays the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the Star Spangled Banner. The flag is highly tattered from its age and experience but is its aura affected? In the end it is the viewer that invests this flag with meaning. Might our flag, draped carefully from the garage inspire similar feelings from Key? Is it rather the battle or the moment that inspired Key?

(Please Don’t) Live Forever

October 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Might one indicator of adulthood be the loss of interest in living forever? For the young and optimistic, life is rich with opportunity: fame and  fortune are but a day away and paradise awaits. For others, a career and responsibility have transformed one’s days to a series of chores and tasks. Weeks become less collections of opportunities and more extensive lists of needs and chores to do. When life becomes a gigantic list of tasks these is little to look forward to.

For the workers, desire shifts to rest and, if one is capable of imagining a life beyond the flesh, a world of unlimited pleasure while still desired exists beyond the human life. When this becomes the accepted state, a life that does not end is nightmare.

No matter how one sees paradise, it is the future that holds the happiness. To the young this place remains reachable in a human life. “I’ll be famous when they know” or “one day I’ll be rich” are legitimate possibilities. To the rest a life becomes a burden before death. Gifted with the possibility of heaven, some think” In heaven, I’ll be happy” and toil day-to-day with a sense of future pleasure as the goal. Potential shifts to punishment and paradise lifts higher and higher.

No matter what the age a world of bliss and endless pleasure is the goal. For some this state is within reach while for others a more ethereal destination holds the key. We all want the endless candy bars and fields of vegetation. The only grand distinction lies in how: is it here within my reach or just beyond my life. If its death that gifts desire than an endless life is just delay and one that does not end a confounding source of terror.

Incentivized to Action

September 30, 2013 Leave a comment

Maybe understanding the reasons why people do things isn’t all that difficult. Maybe we’re not as complicated as we claim to be? Do our motivations say less about who we are and more about what we stand to gain? Can we ever act without that simple question, “What’s in it for me” being at the heart of all we do? In the end, all things boil down to this simple state of affairs: what do we stand to gain in doing what we do?

To consider the incentives for action is to seek answers to this question. We do not act without incentives; though, in some cases, hidden or delayed incentives may mask our true intentions. Does one donate blood only for the good of other people? At some level that blood donor senses an incentive to give: maybe pride or maybe just a free cookie- no matter what its a personal perk that drives intention.

Of course these incentives are far from simple. Great sacrifices often accompany our actions and a simplified observation that incentives run all decisions paints a very dire, cynical image of the world. Do we limit our perspectives of society by thinking in such terms? Perhaps a better model recognizes incentives as powerful triggers and mirrors. Incentives both drive future action and mirror what makes us work.

The binary of “carrot versus stick” is often used to consider programs to drive action. Prod with the stick in the form of taxes, punishment or denied pleasure. On the other hand, the carrot here is a reward or gift for action. One who wants a group of people to stop smoking might make insurance more expensive or provide free counseling. The choice remains with leadership and depends on a philosophy of motivation. What makes people change? Is it fear of punishment or desire for reward?

Slippery Words

September 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Political skill revolves around a slippery use of language. When “civilian casualties” becomes “collateral damage” we double dilute our meaning by turning the death of innocent human beings into vague, fuzzy notions. What is collateral or citizens for that matter? The blood on the pavement is horror realized and the only way to come to terms with its existence is to muddle and hide. For those tasked with maintaining order or whose actions lead to such situations, a distortion of language might be less about the audience and more the interior of the speaker.

How do evildoers come to terms with what they do? Is evil a quality of being able to disregard disgusting acts? Kant’s categorical imperative can be simplified to ask, “If everyone else does what I do, can society function?” It expands the actions of one to the group as a whole. Doing so reveals how certain things that occur on a small-scale can only occur without damage at the small-scale. If we all disregard the speed limit the roads will be chaos, but a few speeders can be tolerated.

Likewise a manipulation of language can only occur on the small-scale. When leaders distort language there must be figures who correct them. Not all will be capable of this action and those who cannot are likely to fall victim to the distortion. The strength of society lies in those who refuse to be manipulated and utilize critical thinking to respond to what occurs. One can think but action is required. Extending beyond the ivory tower is the real act of heroism. Your papers may be published and thousands may re-tweet, like and favor but all is naught is nothing is done.

Towards A Larger Something

July 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Do all humans need something larger to believe in? Where religion falls victim to doubt and atheism takes hold the individual simply replaces one faith with another. It is often suggested that where the religious take confidence in figures like Christ, Moses and Mohammed the atheist community forms similar connects to Darwin, Marx and Shakespeare. In each “great man” the follower invests hope and the search for purpose. If every human needs guidance in “how to live” where might one find a greater sense of purpose beyond these larger figures? Is it possible to live beyond this need for something more? Is a greater power the only real source of sense in a life of seeming futility?

Some might question the importance of these important figures. Surely Shakespeare can be respected, but to serve as a God-like smacks of exaggeration. How might Darwin play a religious like role for the non-religious? When one’s ideas become foundational to existence than these powerful roles take hold. As Jesus framed a model for existence, Darwin has come to represent a way of thinking and seeing the world. The movement from basic theories to broad, life-guiding theories transcends the individual to a religious figure. The prophet is one who provides profound insight in a world of endless confusion.

What of the events that celebrate common bonds and aim to establish greater sense of community? Is the church service replaced by conventions or concerts? Does not one find common bonds with fellow human beings at the rock concert? The similarities are striking if one considers forms of dress, directions of focus and use of music. One might find it difficult to delineate where the differences stand and where the music concert inspired the church service and vice versa. Both have common goals and common means to a success. Certainly both events serve the purpose of bringing seemingly diverse people together for a common goal. No matter the ends of these events, the means to group cohesion are very similar. All humans seem determined to find a greater sense of purpose and seek it out in varied forms and places.

Utility of Choices

June 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Just as our decisions reflect back on who we are, the utility of these choices has suggestive power. We learn more about who we are when we consider what we purchase and the reasons beyond our thinking. In Fight Club, Brad Pitt’s character admonishes us by saying “You are not your fucking khakis,” but how accurate is this statement? Are we not, in some minor sense, our purchases?

Everything we buy exists in multiple domains. A pair of Dockers khakis are at once khakis and symbols of our culture, perceived social status and the characterization of ourselves we wish to present to the world. Certainly the individual wearing a pair of khakis is seeking to suggest something different from an individual wearing frayed jeans. We benefit in our ability to use these varied symbols as we need to: everyone can wear khakis or jeans and do so on the basis of what the moment demands.

It is in this deployment of choice that we can learn so much. If each of us can posses the varied means of communication than it is in the application and selection that the real communication takes place. What pants does he wear and when? Pants are just one example of this ability to communicate. Similar options exist in what we eat, where we live and even what we choose to view on television. All aspects of life come with options and it is in the selection that the individual is revealed.

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