Marginalia 18: the beautiful and the surprising

RS Benedict recently made the observation that in contemporary Western culture, Everyone Is Beautiful and No One Is Horny. Benedict is writing about about Hollywood film. But she's also writing about the culture more broadly, and it's hard to disagree with her about the vacuity of hyper capitalism and how it drains joy out of even our most elemental animal spirits:

In her blog McMansion Hell, Kate Wagner examines precisely why these widely-hated 5000-square foot housing bubble behemoths are so awful. Over and over again, she reiterates the point that McMansions are not built to be homes; they’re built to be short-term investments... The same fate has befallen our bodies. A body is no longer a holistic system. It is not the vehicle through which we experience joy and pleasure during our brief time in the land of the living. It, too, is a collection of features [which] exist not to make our lives more comfortable, but to increase the value of our assets.

Her piece starts with a reference to Paul Verhoeven's disturbing film “Starship Troopers” — a film that I haven't watched for years, but imagine would probably strike me as less wryly funny now than when it was released, because it so accurately describes our current reality. Benedict's piece is a great pair to David Roth's article published in The New Yorker last July, How “Starship Troopers” Aligns with Our Moment of American Defeat.

Once again, the present has caught up to Verhoeven’s acid vision of the future. It’s not a realization that anyone in the film can articulate, or seemingly even process, but the failure is plain: society has left itself a single solution to every problem, and it doesn’t work.

So how to break out of this cycle? Once answer might be to pay more attention to The Intellectual Life of Kids, the topic of a great episode on KPFA's Against the Grain last week. Psychologist Susan Engel speaks about her research and her new book on the same topic, pointing out that the way we learn (as individuals but also as societies) is by constantly finding new things to be “surprised by”. I found this a really interesting way of thinking about the learning process, and it makes sense. Human brains enjoy novelty, and Engels seems to be arguing (amongst other things of course — her primary point is that children have intellectual lives that are very often under-appreciated by adults) that the driver for learning more and more specific detail about a particular topic is primarily driven not be “interest” in an abstract way so much as the desire to find out new “surprises”.

Something that might surprise you is an independent American small-holding farmer arguing against the Farmers Market model, yet that's exactly what Chris Newman does in a piece published on Medium in 2019, arguing that “the romance of neoliberal peasant farming blinds us to our collective power”. As a Certified Middle Class Wanker I frequent farmers markets but always felt slightly ambivalent about how they operate — at least in the Melbourne context. Newman's central argument is that Farmers Markets are extraordinarily inefficent, and if the same farmers organised as a cooperative they could provide access to their produce where the customers are located but focus their energy on the thing they like doing and are good at — farming — instead of working 100 hour weeks because, due to operating as independent consumer-facing businesses they have to be their own freight carriers, retailers, social media managers, and so on. That is, Newman sees a viable model that is neither the somewhat neo-liberal and very inefficient farmers market model nor the arguably highly efficient but extremely monopolistic and hyper-consumerist supermarket model: a producer cooperative. It's an intriguing idea.

The final little piece I wanted to share today is Mozilla's POP Your Event! guide:

For any project or event, it’s important to be clear on your purpose for the work, the outcomes you hope to see, and the process you’ll use to get there— before you get going.

I've been talking with some colleagues about improving some of our practices, particularly around that bane of office life, meetings. I think the simple POP model can also be useful for either running or avoiding meetings, if it's used to structure thinking around a particular need. If you think about a thing that needs to happen in a work context — “X” — that could be the purpose. Very often people skip immediately to “process” and on auto-pilot decide that the process should be “a meeting”. But if you think even just for a few minutes about the outcomes you want, often “a meeting” is clearly not going to deliver those outcomes. And if getting people together to discuss something is needed, you can use POP recursively to think (before the meeting!) about what the purpose, outcomes, and process of the meeting will be. I guess time will tell whether this helps in my own work context.

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