Saturday, December 20, 2008

What's Hot?

How does society define what's attractive?

I think there are two main factors--genetics and economics. The genetic factor is pretty simple. It pertains to inherent qualities that indicate good potential for procreation. The economic factor is more complicated. It pertains to variable qualities that indicate a high social status. For example, being plump has been considered attractive in some societies because it was supposed to show that you were well off. In our society it's not considered attractive because, I would speculate, it's supposed to show that you're indolent. We're rich enough to assume everyone is fed, so now we're more interested in who's competitive.

Media images of women show the emphasis on competition. Supermodels are uniformly muscular and mannish-looking. Give Kathy Ireland a haircut, and she could pass for Rob Lowe. But beyond that, the intolerance of blemishes shows how economic factors largely govern our evaluation of beauty. Models look like money was spent on them. Their hair is just so. Their clothes are the most expensive. Their every imperfection is covered with make-up. Any problem that remains is assigned to a team of electronic air brush artists who spend valuable time smoothing it over. I would argue that the time and dollars spent are more significant than the aesthetic quality of the end result, which in some cases is questionable, if not bizarre. On some level, we don't think women who spend money on their appearance are hot because of the way they look. We think they're hot because they look like they spent money on their appearance.

Moreover, the least attractive thing a female celebrity can do is neglect her career and play a motherly role. See, for example, Britney Spears. She's pretty plain. The girl who used to work at the convenience store in my neighborhood was hotter. Britney was idolized because someone spent money to make her look (and sound) like something we should notice. But when she started having kids, the men and boys of America convulsed in a collective hurl. Some expressed it in terms of "OMG, what's she doing to her career?" Others expressed it in terms of "OMG, what's happening to her looks?" It was all the same sentiment, though. She was no longer the superwoman who could go out and kick ass in the real world, then come home with a load of cash and kick ass in bed. She was just an ordinary girl with mediocre clothes and probable stretch marks. What could be more disgusting? She almost looked like you'd have to take care of her.

Not that women necessarily have to be taken care of or that there's anything wrong with their having careers. It's possible to be a professional and a mother, and it's also okay not to be a mother at all. But men presumably have careers, too. So, since when do we take only the most intense symbols of female independence as the standard of beauty? Maybe it's because many of us are children of divorced parents and are looking for someone strong to take care of us. Maybe it's because the single-income family is no longer sustainable for most people and we have to look for a capable partner. In the most pessimistic view, maybe we've become so materialistic that the economic factor outweighs everything else.

Reflections On Reflection

Is there anything a philosopher can know for certain? For me, there's only one proposition that comes to mind, and that is that neither philosophy, science, nor any of our other arts will ever give us irrefutable answers to our basic questions about eternity and the meaning of life. No philosophical statement could be better supported by inductive evidence than this--there are questions about which reasonable people will always disagree.

For some, that's all you need to know about philosophy. It goes nowhere. For others, it doesn't matter. The questions are what's important, not the answers. But if this is the only proposition we can be sure of, what are its implications? What if we looked at it not as a conversation killer, nor as an irrelevancy, but as a starting point? If it is the only thing we know for sure, maybe it's important.

An obvious inference is that if there is a God, in the usual sense of the term, he designed the universe in such way that we can't prove his existence with certainty. Christianity teaches that he came to earth in human form and worked enough miracles to fill a library, so to speak. Regardless of whether the tale is true, it's clearly not enough. Even if it is true, reasonable people still disagree.

What if he stayed on earth and worked miracles all the time, and anyone could see a miracle simply by taking time to visit him? What if, for example, we could all go to see Jesus tonight and get him to do the water into wine trick? Would all reasonable people come away with the same opinion? Or would some come away wondering whether there could be some scientific explanation? To take it a step further, what if miracles were so common that no one could doubt them? In that case, scientific inquiry as we know it wouldn't exist. In fact, neither would the concept of miracles. We would all see that the universe had a certain unpredictability and irrationality to it, but would that necessarily imply the existence of a God? Not at all.

On the other hand, if Christianity and many other religions have it right, God is perceptible to those in the spirit world. If he placed us outside that world for a while, he did so intentionally. We arrive at three conclusions, then. First, if God exists, he designed us in such a way that we can't perceive him directly. Second, he designed the universe in such a way that it's impossible for us to prove his existence. Third, and most interesting, he designed the universe in such a way that it's impossible for him to prove his existence to us. And a fourth conclusion follows from the third--if there is a God and you are interested in knowing him, you can't expect proof.

So the question is what this means. How does it affect our understand of God? Plants and animals don't have to think about any of this stuff. Spiritual beings like angels are supposedly in the know. Why are we the only ones with all the questions and none of the answers?

Louise Glück's book of poetry The Wild Iris answers the question in a beautiful way, though not a way that's very satisfying to those who put their hopes in eternal life. "Grief is distributed between you, among all your kind, for me to know you, as deep blue marks the wild scilla, white the wood violet." Christianity answers it somewhat differently by saying it's a test of faith. The two approaches differ as to whether there's anything for the individual to obtain after she's served her earthly purpose, but they agree on one point--suffering and doubt aren't just obstacles to the fulfillment of our purpose. They're actually part of the purpose in some way. As one philosopher said, we are the eyes through which the universe is able to perceive its own glory. If so, it appears that part of what the universe feels is a sense of doubt and a sense of loss. But maybe also a sense of hope.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Post-Modern Capitalism

Manufacturers always seek to minimize costs and maximize profits. This is an obvious principle of modern capitalism…but is it the only principle? I would say it hasn’t always been the only principle in effect. Most of the time, it’s been balanced by other factors. Businesses saw their customers as more than just wallets and purses, they looked to cultivate good will over the long term, and they took pride in the quality of their work. Because they saw themselves as part of a community, even if in some cases it was a community of national scale, they valued their reputations for civility and fair dealing.

Post-modern capitalism is different. It’s more a mechanical process of extracting as much money as possible as fast as possible from the consumer. I call it post-modern because I think the concept of the simulacrum adds something to our understanding of it.

Music stands were the first example I noticed. When I was an undergrad music major, my school replaced the older-than-dirt music stands with new ones. This was partly because the old ones had paint wearing off and looked kind of ratty, and partly because many of them had been lost through attrition. They tended to wander off to church gigs and weddings, and most students seemed to think they were entitled to take one with them after graduation.

The new stands arrived, freshly put together and spray painted, and were immediately subjected to the harshest ridicule we could dish out. I almost felt sorry for them…but not quite, because they were a bitch to deal with. The steel was unevenly cut and thin as paper, like the metallic equivalent of the Wal-Mart bargain rack shirt that no one wanted. But more important, the screw that attached the stand to the base wouldn’t ever stay tight. Within a few days, the stands were swaying and reeling around in circles like drunken…well, musicians. They were barely out of the boxes when one of violinists had a look at them and referred to them as “stand-shaped objects.” Simulacra, in other words. They weren’t really music stands. They looked like the old ones at a distance, but actually they were something different.

Likewise, when I buy a can opener that opens two or three cans and then breaks, I haven’t really bought a can opener. By that I mean, I haven’t bought something that was at all designed to open cans. It’s something that was designed to look like what we call “Can Opener” until I took it off the rack and paid money for it. At that point, its purpose was fully accomplished. The fact that I may (or may not) be able to open cans with it the next day is completely incidental.

This is in contrast with the more civil way of doing business, where the product is still designed to make a profit for the producer but is also designed to function in some way for the consumer. In the po-mo world, the consumer item is kind of a tangible lie. In a way, we’re surrounded by lies. You don’t have a pencil sharpener, to take one example that a friend of mine recently complained about and that frustrated me just today. You have a pencil-sharpener-shaped object. And a hose-shaped object, which splits open after a few weeks, and then you have to duct tape it if you want the water to end up in your garden instead of your basketball court. And a car-shaped object, which may get you where you want to go for a while, but its real job is to wear out its constituent parts and get you back into the dealer’s garage…and as soon as you get frustrated enough with the repair bills, back into his showroom. And so on. In some cases you can get the real items if you really want to, but you have to pay a premium. Most can’t afford it.

Anyway, this is why we can put a man on the moon but we supposedly can’t make a can of deodorant that will stop spraying when you let go of the button (this is a new one on me, but it’s happened twice now). The corporations aren’t particularly trying to make useful products. They make objects that look and act more or less like what we recognize as useful products…but not for too long, lest we find the opportunity to spend our money on something else.