Thursday, March 24, 2011

Big and small potatoes

My high school district recently decided that private schools have no right to hog all the alumni love and dollars in America, and began soliciting donations and sending out an occasional alumni newsletter with updates on the lives of some tiny proportion of its graduates. If nothing else, this newsletter demonstrates just why it is that these kinds of materials should be limited to private schools, particularly those where competition and self-promotion are more thoroughly ingrained. The newsletter informs me that someone from the class of 2005 won a local mural contest and someone from the class of 1987 self-published his self-help book. Someone from the class of 1992 works at a pizza restaurant and someone else works in the district administration. And several people from various classes are dead--announcements which are indelicately interspersed among the sunnier news.

By contrast, the much glossier UChicago alumni magazine offers a picture of lives lived and promoted on a larger scale (as well as a segregated morgue). Research scientists and international journalists and...the Oregon State varsity basketball coach? The back matter feature book publications, promotions to law firm partnerships, world travels culminating in gallery openings, and so on. (The older alumni make a point of emphasizing their world travels, as if to dispel any suspicion that their age has slowed them down. I suppose this is what instills jealousy among the 60+ crowd the way that making partner is the 35 year-old's way of grinning smugly in 20 words?)

But. District 219 reminds us that it has one alumnus of note who will put all of UChicago's feverishly competitive strivers to shame. He is featured in every issue of the alumni newsletter, and his success is apparently not intended to diminish the rest of us toiling away at our pizza restaurants and writing our self-help books, but rather to lift us up with him. His triumph gives us all a name. And who is this great-souled being? As it turns out, the guy who founded is a Niles West alum. But that's not all. Not only did he found, but he has also recently launched a new Verily, through him, we touch eternity.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Undergrad marginalia call-and-response

Notes in part II of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality from my first (enthusiastic) and second (tempered) reading:

Spring break plans for extraordinary goal accomplishment (paper! article! presentation! generals reading!) totally ruined by onset of the flu.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

This is for Phoebe

An excellent article via Ari on Dan Savage's--what shall we call them?--metaphysics:
All the same, behind Savage’s pragmatism stand some fairly strong claims about how sex relates to selfhood. Whatever else he ends up advising a correspondent to do, Savage tends to insist that sexual inclinations—from high libido and a desire for multiple partners to very rare kinks and fetishes—are immutable and even dominant characteristics of any personality. Some desires may be impossible to fulfill, others are flagrantly immoral, and most any can be destructive when pursued without regard for the kinds of ethical guidelines Savage lays out. But for Savage, no matter how we direct its expression, our sexual self is our truest self.

In recent years Savage’s moral elevation of sexual fulfillment has been bolstered by his embrace of popularized accounts of evolutionary biology, which purport to find our true human nature in the primordial past or in our evolutionary cousins, the randy bonobos and aggressive chimpanzees. Last year Savage cowrote one week’s column with the authors of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, calling their book “the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey.” It caused a stir among his readers, so he followed up with his own comments. “What the authors of Sex at Dawn believe—and what I think they prove—is that we are a naturally nonmonogamous species, despite what we’ve been told for millennia by preachers and for centuries by scientists.” Culture—represented here by hectoring, fanatical preachers, and hectoring, misguided scientists—is a long postscript, an imposition on our true selves. People should live up to their monogamous commitments, which, after all, have the form of a mutually negotiated contract. But they should not expect anything unrealistic from themselves or each other, since such agreements, however binding, are unnatural. Sex will have its way with us one way or another—either by shaping our commitments to the form of its fulfillment or by making us miserable. For Aristotle, we are what we repeatedly do. For Dan Savage, we are what we enduringly desire.

As it happens, this vision fits rather well in a society built around consumption. If Savage’s ethical guidelines—disclosure, autonomy, mutual exchange, and minimum standards of performance—seem familiar or intuitive, it’s probably because they also govern expectations in the markets for goods and services. No false advertising, no lemons, nothing omitted from the fine print: in the deregulated marketplace of modern intimacy, Dan Savage has become a kind of Better Business Bureau, laying out the rules by which individuals, as rationally optimizing firms, negotiate their wildly diverse transactions.

Classical liberalism, however, may prove just as inadequate in the bedroom as it has in the global economy, and for many of the same reasons. It takes into account only a narrow range of our motivations, overstates our rationality and our foresight, downplays the costs of transactions, and ignores the asymmetries of information that complicate any exchange of love or money. For society as a whole, it entails a utopian faith in the capacity of millions of appetites to work themselves out into an optimal economy of sex—a trading floor where the cultural institutions of domesticity once stood. And for the individual, it may only replace the old sexual frustrations with new emotional ones. People who think they are motivated only by lust may end up feeling love; people who forswear any strings may feel them forming; and perfect transparency may prove an ideal no less unattainable than perfect monogamy...

...Potential romantic partners, unlike firms in the classical free-market model, are not infinite in number, and a life of comparison shopping is not free of cost. If the aspiring HND dissolves this years-long transaction in order to find a partner who is just as lovable but less jealous, or who shares his libido at every point, he will likely have a lonely road ahead of him.
A perfect storm haze of blurred distinctions--between the human animal and the other animals, between economics and politics, between eros and utility. The invocation of Aristotle is not for nothing.

UPDATE: Phoebe responds, and gets profiled (unrelated events). To relate them, however, we might note that this is perhaps the source of all of my Phoebe's disagreements (going "all the way down," in the professional philosophy lingo I recently picked up): "What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat? > Anti-modernity."

Saturday, March 05, 2011

I need a new category for Styles Style

We've discussed Styles Style here before--that brilliant NYT approach to simultaneously glorifying and demeaning the city's wealthiest residents. You may scoff at this clever innovation on society pages, but I happen to know that there are only so many new spellings of Qaddafi/Khadafy/Ghadhafi/etc. that you can absorb before you find yourself clicking through to personal interest articles like this about the travails of young New York socialites struggling to reconcile arbitrary exclusivity with their thoroughgoing bourgie-ness. Now, this article isn't even personally interesting to an audience wider than five people, and yet, thanks to the gem about slow-minded middle America that the writer has managed to get out of one of his subjects, it has something even for me. The NY-specific class resentment of journalists joins forces with America's generalized aversion to snobbery to produce #1 most emailed articles on topics relevant to no one in America except the person interviewed for the article. Consider this brilliant quote:
To Anne de la Mothe Karoubi, 24, who went to the Marymount School, it’s an intellectual precociousness. “When you grow up in New York City, our minds develop faster,” she said. “You’re not from Wisconsin, you’re not from the middle of America. We’re international, we’re focused, we’re driven.”
The craft involved in this! A reporter got this presumably educated, culturally-aware woman to utter these words on the record to an NYT reporter!

And notice the elegant pairing of the subjects' illustrious prep schools with their humdrum colleges: Dalton, Trinity, Browning (which I'd never heard of before--new knowledge!) goes to Lafayette, GWU, Trinity in Hartford and studies that greatest of all thoroughly middle-brow vocational majors in the world--marketing. I mean, you may as well get an AA in dental hygiene. The reporter delights in all this obviously--he probably went to Brown or Cornell or someplace with an acceptably selective admissions policy and thinks, my SATs were double yours, you airheaded clown in a checked Burberry suit. And just to prove it, he demonstrates that he too knows about "sipp[ing] Côtes du Rhône at sidewalk cafes" and which are the most exclusive enclaves in the Hamptons, so there.

The great tragedy of this article is that the reporter never vindicates the characters in Metropolitan, who are infinitely more interesting than these people, and he doesn't follow the potentially promising line of questioning that may begin by asking exactly what a 23-year-old "art dealer and consultant" actually does, or what is entailed in being a "stylist and fashion designer" at 22. But we'll cut him slack for that if it bought him that Wisconsin quote.