Living Your Best Life?

by Martin Butler

The expression ‘Live your best life’ is very much in vogue. It appears more than 3 million times in Instagram posts, which are no doubt full of pictures of smiling attractive 20-somethings completing amazing sporting feats, strolling along glorious beaches or doing exciting things in exotic places. Working 12 shifts delivering parcels for Amazon presumably doesn’t make the grade. As with many other inspirational (or is it aspirational) sayings that pepper the internet, perhaps we should dismiss this expression as just part of the froth produced by internet influencers desperate for our attention. But what does its popularity say about our times? Let’s look beyond the predictable healthy lifestyle stuff and try to actually make sense of it as a philosophical idea. After all, if interpreted generously, it does have a certain philosophical pedigree.

To start with, what does best actually mean? It very much depends on how we view human beings. Regarded in a narrowly hedonic way, where the only things that matter are pleasure and pain, our best life would be one where we avoid as much pain and experience as much pleasure as possible.  This is clearly implausible for many reasons, one being the conclusion of Nozick’s powerful thought experiment: few would regard their best life as being permanently hooked up to an ‘experience machine’ which eliminated pain and provided you with nothing but delightful pleasure. The passive experiencing of pleasure would not be enough. A best life surely requires that we participate in meaningful activities which lead to fulfilment and flourishing, a point which tends to lead to a more individualistic notion. Most people are roughly similar in terms of what they find pleasurable and painful; masochists excepted, human beings tend to find physical injury painful and sweet food pleasant. This is not the case, however, with regards to living a fulfilling life. I personally wouldn’t find a life dedicated to martial arts, rock climbing or running marathons fulfilling, but for many these activities are deeply fulfilling. So is there something distinctively modern about the individualism implicit in living your best life? Read more »

Latifa Echakhch. Taqsim, 2017.

Fresco, installation.

More here and here.

This is Called Freedom

by Rebecca Baumgartner

A little over a year ago, in Allen, Texas, we saw the precise moment when a “good guy with a gun” became a “bad guy with a gun.” It turns out that the line between these two different types of people (and there are only two, we’re told) is as slight as a finger squeezing a trigger. Certainly nothing prior to that trigger-squeeze at the Allen Premium Outlets was illegal. In Texas, as of 2021, someone can legally carry eight guns in public – without a license or permit of any kind. 

Under Texas’ recently expanded “open carry” law, you can take as many guns as you want into a library. You can take as many guns as you want into the state Capitol building in Austin. You can take as many guns as you want with you while walking down the street.

This is called freedom.

It’s a freedom that requires you to accept some logical catch-22s, though. For example, the dividing line between a law-abiding citizen exercising his supposed right to bear arms and a mentally unstable man who should never have had a gun in the first place is only discernible after he has killed people. Once someone becomes a gun-wielding maniac, they retroactively never should have been allowed to have a gun. (It’s a shame they don’t have the courtesy to tell us ahead of time that they’re the bad guys.)

You can get around this conundrum if you believe in a world where people are either all good or all bad, and we can tell the difference. Gun extremists believe in a fairytale world split into dark and light. They would have us believe that it’s just a matter of finding out who falls into which camp. The forces for good get as many guns as they want and are trusted implicitly, and the forces of darkness are (somehow, without legislative intervention) kept from getting guns. And then the good guys with guns keep us safe from the bad guys with guns. Just like in stories.

But notably, and tragically, this is precisely what does not tend to happen during mass shootings in the real world. This is not what happened at the Parkland school shooting or the Orlando nightclub shooting. This is not what happened at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, either. The good guys with guns just stood there, scared out of their minds, while people died. Read more »

Theories of Art and Rachel Cusk

by Derek Neal

An excerpt of Rachel Cusk’s forthcoming novel, Parade, appeared in the Financial Times last week. The story features two narratives, one about a female painter simply referred to as “G,” told in third person, and another about a group of people visiting a farm in the countryside, told in first person plural. It is unclear how these two stories intersect in terms of plot—is G the narrator of the second story? Is she the woman living on the farm?—but these are not questions worth asking. Thematically, the two stories fit together as they both tell of women constrained and controlled by male figures of authority: in this case, their husbands.

Nestled within this narrative is a fascinating articulation of a theory of art, which is what I will focus on in this essay. Cusk does not pause the story to explain this theory, as some purveyors of “autofiction” might do, but embeds it within the story by explaining G’s different artistic periods and the way her art relates to her personal life. The story is stronger because of this.

In the beginning of G’s career, she is seemingly self-taught, lacking formal and technical skill but compensating for it with inspiration and honesty. Her painting is described as existing “autonomously, living in her like some organism that had happened to make its home there.” In this characterization, G is simply the vessel giving shape to an artistic drive she scarcely understands, rather than the source of its creation. Read more »

Pantomime: Not Just For Horses

by Mike O’Brien

This is going to be a broad-strokes, fast-and-loose affair. Or at least loose. In April I wrote a piece about recent work in the field of animal normativity, a quickly developing area of research that is of interest to me for two key reasons: first, it promises to deepen our knowledge of animal cognition and behaviour, allowing us to better attend to their welfare; second, it promises to fill in the genealogical history of our own normative senses, allowing us to better understand the human experience of morality.

Mostly following the cohort of researchers around Kristin Andrews, who are working on de-anthropocentrized taxonomies and conceptual frameworks for studying animal normativity, I noted that one question of particular interest remains outstanding, viz. “do animals have norms about norms?”. Put another way, do animals think about the (innate, and learned) norms governing life in their communities, and do they (consciously or unconsciously) follow higher-order “meta-normative” rules to resolve conflicts between two or more conflicting norms? The answer still seems to be that they do not, at least not among the higher primates who are the principal focus of study for these questions.

One possible explanation for this apparent absence of recursive or reflexive normativity among non-human animals is a lack of language. It is supposed by some that in order to make norms the object of thought, capable of being analyzed, evaluated, compared and synthesized, some system of external representation is needed, and such a system would fit most definitions of a language. If other species possessed such a powerful cognitive tool, we might suppose that they would use it for all kinds of things, not just resolving normative quandaries. And yet we don’t see much evidence for that kind of abstract, propositional communication among other species. Some tantalizing exceptions come to mind, like enculturated apes using sign language and cetacean communication exhibiting structure and complexity that we have yet to fully understand. But as yet there are no examples of bonobo judges or dolphin sages sorting out the immanent logic of their societies’ rules. Read more »

Sunday, May 26, 2024

On Salman Rushdie’s ‘Knife’

Michael O’Donnell at The Millions:

Is Salman Rushdie an artist or a symbol? Can he be one but not the other? Or perhaps it’s an all-or-nothing affair and he is both or else neither. Ever since Rushdie, the author of 13 novels, was violently attacked onstage in August 2022 at a literary event, one line of thinking has it that his books should perforce be celebrated. The New Yorker embodied this view when it made the case, with very little discussion of Rushdie’s work, to award him the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was not an unpersuasive editorial, but in it, what Rushdie’s work represented outweighed what it contained. Yet if that’s the “both” case, the “neither” perspective feels even less satisfactory. Six days after the attempted murder, the American Conservative poured disdain on Rushdie as a free-speech icon and as a novelist, suggesting that anyone who mocks religion deserves a punch at the least and crassly asserting, “the fact that someone tried to kill an author doesn’t make that author’s books any good.”

More here.

What mosquitoes are most attracted to in human body odor is revealed

Kate Golembiewski at CNN:

“We were really motivated to try and develop a system where we could study the behavior of the African malaria mosquito in a naturalistic habitat, reflective of its native home in Africa,” McMeniman said. The researchers also wanted to compare the mosquitoes’ smell preferences across different humans, to observe the insects’ ability to track scents across distances of 66 feet (20 meters), and to study them during their most active hours, between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

To tick all these boxes, the researchers created a screened facility the size of a skating rink. Dotting the perimeter of the facility were six screened tents where study participants would sleep. Air from their tents, carrying the participants’ unique breath and body odor scents, was pumped through long tubes to the main facility onto absorbent pads, warmed and baited with carbon dioxide to mimic a sleeping human.

More here.

Ken Roth: Why is the west defending Israel after the ICC requested Netanyahu’s arrest warrant?

Ken Roth in The Guardian:

In a terse statement, Joe Biden called the charges “outrageous”, stating that “there is no equivalence – none – between Israel and Hamas”. The German government, while saying it “respects the independence” of the court, echoed this “false equivalence” charge. But Khan made no claim of equivalence. He simply charged both Israeli and Hamas officials for their own separate war crimes. Indeed, given the severity of the offenses, it would have been outrageous had Khan ignored one side’s crimes. The dual charges underscore a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law: war crimes by one side never justify war crimes by another.

Ironically, Hamas responded to the proposed charges with a variation of this theme, saying that Khan’s action “equates the victim with the executioner”. But regardless of the perceived justness of one’s cause, it never justifies war crimes.

More here.

AI chatbots are intruding into online communities where people are trying to connect with other humans

Casey Fiesler in The Conversation:

A parent asked a question in a private Facebook group in April 2024: Does anyone with a child who is both gifted and disabled have any experience with New York City public schools? The parent received a seemingly helpful answer that laid out some characteristics of a specific school, beginning with the context that “I have a child who is also 2e,” meaning twice exceptional.

On a Facebook group for swapping unwanted items near Boston, a user looking for specific items received an offer of a “gently used” Canon camera and an “almost-new portable air conditioning unit that I never ended up using.”

Both of these responses were lies. That child does not exist and neither do the camera or air conditioner. The answers came from an artificial intelligence chatbot.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Early Morning In Your Room

It’s morning. The brown scoops of coffee, the wasp-like
Coffee grinder, the neighbors still asleep.
The gray light as you pour gleaming water–
It seems you’ve traveled years to get here.

Finally you deserve a house. If not deserve
It, have it; no one can get you out. Misery
Had its way, poverty, no money at least.
Or maybe it was confusion. But that’s over.

Now you have a room. Those lighthearted books:
The Anatomy of Melancholy, Kafka’s Letter
to his Father, are all here. You can dance
With only one leg, and see the snowflake falling

With only one eye. Even the blind man
Can see. That’s what they say. If you had
A sad childhood, so what? When Robert Burton
Said he was melancholy, he meant he was home.

by Robert Bly
Poetic Outlaws

Does Memorial Day have its origins in defeated Confederates?

Gillian Brockell in The Washington Post:

In July 1866, a New York newspaper reported on a “grand gathering” of Union veterans in Salem, Ill. Gen. John A. Logan, head of the fraternal group the Grand Army of the Republic, delivered a speech, railing against the defeated Confederates and urging rights and protections for freed enslaved people. He also angrily noted that “traitors in the South have their gatherings, day after day, to strew garlands of flowers upon the graves of Rebel soldiers.”

He was bothered by reports that in towns across the South, women were decorating the graves of dead Confederates. Two years later, he proposed the same idea. On May 5, 1868, Logan ordered the first nationwide public holiday on May 30, then known as “Decoration Day,” to honor war dead. A national day honoring American men and women who have died while serving in the military has been observed ever since.

On Monday, millions of Americans will mark Memorial Day again with parades, picnics and cemetery visits. Officially, Memorial Day started in Waterloo, N.Y.; that’s according a 1966 law signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. And there was definitely a local observance of war dead there in 1866. But here’s the thing — there’s no evidence Logan was inspired by or even aware of Waterloo’s observance when he pitched his plan. Contemporaneous coverage doesn’t credit Waterloo either. In 1868, the New York Times said: “The ladies of the South instituted this memorial day. They wished to annoy the Yankees; and now the Grand Army of the Republic in retaliation and from no worthier motive, have determined to annoy them by adopting their plan of commemoration.”

More here.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Degrowth from the Left

Oliver Eagleton in The Ideas Letter:

Intra-Marxist debates are famously irascible, even when their stakes are low. Yet in recent years this intellectual tradition has been further fractured, at the same time as it has been focused and reanimated, by the gravity of the climate crisis. The character of a future egalitarian society, and the most viable way to get there, have been contested by two environmentalist camps: degrowthers and eco-modernists. The first argues that capitalism’s drive for perpetual expansion is the cause of planetary breakdown, and demands a slower, “steady-state” alternative based on less production and consumption. The second claims that this expansionism has created the technological preconditions for a sustainable society, which the working class must now bring to full fruition, rather than aiming for any aggregate contraction. It remains to be seen whether these positions can be reconciled. Yet in broad terms, it is clear that they are clashing expressions of the same phenomenon: the reemergence of a utopian sensibility on the left – one that is determined to identify history’s direction of travel following the premature announcement of its end.

The degrowth school, which has long asserted that humanity’s material impact exceeds the planet’s biophysical capacity, has gained ground with several recent eco-socialist tracts. Kōhei Saitō’s Capital in the Anthropocene (2020), which sold half a million copies in Japan and has been translated into English as Slow Down (2024), describes an apparent shift in Marx’s late thought: away from a naïve faith in the infinite potential of technology towards a sober recognition of ecological limits. The contemporary environmental movement, writes Saitō, must heed this rejection of Prometheanism and abandon the notion of developing the “productive forces” (which, in the lexicon of historical materialism, means the machinery and infrastructure used in the production of goods). It should rather advocate a reduction of resource use in the Global North, establishing a new model of democratic planning to decide what’s needed and what isn’t.

More here.

Good Enough

Sam Adler-Bell in The Baffler:

THERE’S A GAME my girlfriend and I sometimes play. Well, really, it’s more of an argument: “Fuck, Marry, Kill” with the past, present, and future. My answer, which I take to be a good, solid American answer, is fuck the present, marry the future, and kill the past. My reasoning is that you should always want to fuck the present, to live in the moment (as the advertisers say), screw every hole of the now. Likewise, marrying the future is admirable, like monogamy, and prudent, like monogamy; it’s a wish, and a promise, for stability and grace. You have to believe in the future, be loyal to what comes next, to what and who you are always becoming. And that leaves only the past to kill. Which, so what? It’s the past. It’s already passed.

My girlfriend—who is also an American, but an American writer and lover of fiction—has a different answer. She says you should fuck the future, marry the past, and kill the present. I definitely see the appeal of fucking the future; it’s where the action is, the excitement, the unknown. The future is a stranger, and we all want to fuck strangers. And for her, the past is too precious and monumental to kill. Memory is a repository, a treasured burden worth bearing; it’s what you can’t seem to get rid of, even if sometimes you want to. So, you marry it. But here’s where the trouble starts: I can’t allow her to kill the present. When we get going on this topic, she says, “Well, what’s the present? Isn’t it always slipping away? Isn’t it gone the moment you try to do something in it?” And I say, “No! The present is this,” slicing my hand through the air, as if to catch it. “Isn’t this precious?”

More here.