Monthly Archives: December 2013

Christmas and the New Cult of Images

Gossaert 2013 stamp

Christmas is a complicated affair. Never mind the dizzying logistics of 15 billion packages, cards, and letters to be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service this season—many going to those who have so much, fewer to those who have little, and most of them destined for landfills or the bottom of the sea—a thought that brings on a sense of aesthetic fatigue at the environmental consequences of the gift-giving economy, not to mention its deeper ethical quandaries. The simple question of what stamp to choose has also become increasingly complex.

As I was recently and publicly reminded by a postal clerk, with a knowing wink to the other customers waiting in line, it’s no longer acceptable to ask for Christmas stamps. “Holiday” is the preferred term.

Two of this year’s seasonal stamps, though modest in size, reveal much about why images—what we choose to represent by them and the meanings they might unfold—continue to matter in a culture thoroughly saturated by them.

Global Wreath 2013 stamp

Consider the differences between Jan Gossaert’s richly rendered, jewel-like Virgin and Child of 1531 and the “Global Wreath,” the first global holiday stamp, newly commissioned for 2013:

The wreath that graces the stamp art—created especially for the project—has a base made of a wire metal frame folded around Styrofoam, which was spray-painted green. The designer attached evergreen twigs onto picks—small sticks with one sharpened end—and then inserted them into the base, rotating the picks to make the wreath full and lush, a process that took more than eight hours.

I understand, and have some sympathy for, the logic behind the Global Wreath, which is more than a celebration of Styrofoam-and-toothpick craft. As wars of religion continue to rage, with images increasingly at the center, benign symbols like the Global Wreath, nearly emptied of historic or religious content, are carefully constructed to avoid such tensions.

But I chose the Gossaert. The choice was made not without a certain feeling of embarrassment and the need to justify my apparent lack of global spirit, both to the clerk and the suddenly attentive audience awaiting my decision.

“I’m an art historian,” I said, attempting to use my profession as a buffer. “I simply want the most beautiful image, a real work of art.”

Yes, the Gossaert is a real work of art: the deeply saturated colors, subtle volumes and nearly palpable surfaces of its figures and cloth rendered through a masterful application of innumerable layers of paint. It’s an image that overtly performs and announces a dedication to the achievement of the highest principles of painting by an individual artist, in contrast to the anonymous, Styrofoam project that constitutes the Global Wreath.

There’s also a rich symbolism to the painting, an iconography of allusive meanings that slowly unfolds for the viewer who makes the effort to understand the theological significance of the Virgin’s somber, contemplative look, the darkening mood of the sky, the artful exposure of the Child’s genitalia or the cluster of berries he holds in his hands.

But what makes Gossaert’s painting of 1531 deeply moving, and worthy of further reflection, is its fragile synthesis of the humanistic ideals of Renaissance painting and the image as a site of devotional contemplation, a synthesis that was to be shattered by the wars of religion in the Reformation that reshaped the religious and political landscape of modern Europe.

As Reformation scholar James Simpson reminds us, the violent iconoclasm of the sixteenth century, and the resultant shift of contested, religious images into the neutral space of art and museum, had greater consequences than the stripping of Protestant churches and the division of faiths. Our hard-won modernity — the Enlightenment legacy of rational inquiry, freed from the superstitious grip of idolatry–is integrally bound up with the destruction of images.

Yet despite the best efforts of the Reformation and Enlightenment to abolish the idols of images and of the mind, they have returned with renewed force in contemporary culture, reconstituted in powerfully seductive, proliferating forms that are increasingly hard to resist.

From iPads to iPhones, image-rendering screens are an indispensable part of modern life, reconfiguring individual and social behavior in complex ways we are only beginning to grasp, rebooting traditional conceptions of what it means to be human in a post-human world. Given the timely introduction of the iPad mini for the holidays, with expected sales upwards of tens of millions, Christmas day around the globe promises to be a virtual affair, as a new generation of iconophiles pay homage to these artful and miraculous machines.

Should we be worried that the iconic image of the holidays is no longer one of communal gathering around a hearth or table but a scene more reminiscent of Plato’s cave, where individuals are held captive by an illusory succession of flickering images—newly instantiated in even more illusionistic and captivating digital form?

Among modernity’s unintended effects—one that isn’t captured by historian Brad Gregory’s capacious, and controversial, critique—is the ascendancy of a new cult of images:  endlessly distracting technological images that cultivate consumerism rather than contemplation and, more alarming, at times supplant our connections to the real persons, places and the world around us with virtual ones.

Fortunately, we need not be philosopher-kings to occasionally find our way out of our technological confinement. Nor do we need to resort to the wholesale iconoclasm of our intellectual ancestors, though there is nothing so refreshing as occasionally closing the browser, stepping outside into the bright light of day, and noting the suddenly enhanced contrast between the sensuously replete, fully dimensional, physical world, and the digital world of the internet.

We share a life with images. There is an intimate relation between the images that form the basis of perception and the internal images of the imagination, a relation that profoundly shapes the most fundamental aspects of our being as knowing, feeling, and thinking persons. For philosopher Alva Noë, pictures, and how they bring aspects of reality into presence, are crucial to understanding perception in general. The world opens up to us in relation to what we we able to bring into view.

Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense, the German painter Gerhard Richter once wrote. To the degree that we attempt to understand a work of art, it holds the potential to transform how and what we are able to see, enabling us to see more and further, and to become more intelligent in the process. As Kryzstof Ziarek argues in “The End of Art As Its Future” (The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2004), art, in its transformative, poetic possibilities, also enables us see the limits of technology as the dominant  interface with the world.

It may be a virtue of our newly complex, technological condition that the continuing value of the old cult of images, whether of art or literature, is brought into clearer view, precisely at the moment when it would seem to have been lost.

 

Anna Marazuela Kim is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and a member of The Iconoclasms Network, an international team of scholars and curators whose research contributed to the exhibition Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain in London.

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Is the Distracted Life Worth Living?

Philosophy is something close to a national pastime in France, a fact reflected not just in the celebrity status of its big thinkers but also in the interest its media show in the subject.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that several French publications recently sent correspondents, interviewers, and even philosophers to the Richmond, Va. motorcycle repair shop of Matthew Crawford, mechanic, philosopher, and a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford

They  came not only to follow up on points raised in Crawford’s last and best-selling book, Shop Class As Soulcraft: An inquiry into the Value of Work, but also to draw him out on some of the themes of his forthcoming book on the subject of attention, and particularly the cultural dimensions of what might be called our universal Attention Deficit Disorders.  For Crawford,  the two books advance a common concern with mental ecology under the conditions of modernity, and how the challenges to that ecology might be countered by a restored regard for– and a renewed cultivation of– the discipines, practices, and rituals that once gave meaning to everyday life and work.

Jean-Baptiste Jacquin of Le Monde asked Crawford what he means when he says his next book will treat the political economy of attention.  Crawford’s reply (with apologies for my own translation):

Political economy concerns itself with the way certain resources are shared and distributed.   Now, attention is an extremely important resource, as important as the time we each have at our disposal.  Attention is a good, but it is rapidly depleted by a public space saturated with technologies that are dedicated to capturing it…The book I am writing is a warning against the massification of our spirit.  To have any intellectual originality, you must be able to extend a line of reasoning very far.  And to do that, you have to protect yourself against an array of external distractions.

Jacquin pressed Crawford on what specific things people might do to counter the endless demands being put on our attention.  Having a fuller cultural consciousness of the problem is one thing that may help, Crawford suggested.  And engaging in activities that structure our attention is another:

I think manual work, almost any form of manual work,  is a remedy.  Cooking, for example. To prepare a fine meal requires a high level of concentration.  Everything you do at each stage of preparation depends directly on the activity itself and on the objects, the ingredients.

In a dialogue between Crawford and French philosopher Cynthia Fleurry arranged by Madame Figaro , Crawford got into the question of autonomy and its connections with attention:

We have a vision of autonomy that is overly liberal,  almost a caricature of itself, in that we take it to imply a kind of self-enclosure.  Attention is precisely the faculty that pulls us out of our own head and joins us to the world.  Attention, perhaps, is the antidote to narcissism….

The ironic and toxic result of advertising and other information saturating the environment is, Crawford explained, to isolate the self, to flatter it with delusions of its autonomy and agency.  Children grow up pressing buttons and things happen, he elaborated, but they never acquire real mastery over the world of things.  They can only make things happen by clicking buttons. “And there you have it,”  said Crawford , “an autonomy that is autism. ”

An even more intensive discussion of manual work, contrasted with the abstract, symbol-manipulating work that employs more and more people,  appears in the November issue of Philosophie Magazine, with Crawford exchanging thoughts with philosopher Pascal Chabot, author of Global Burn-out (2013).   Crawford nicely summed up what might be lost to all those symbol-manipulators who think of themselves as master of the universe even as they lose a fundamental knowledge of their world:

What anthropology, neurobiology, and common sense teach us is that it’s difficult to penetrate to the sense of things without taking them in hand. …It is not through representations of things but by manipulating them that we know the world.  To say it another way, what is at the heart of human experience is our individual agency:  our capacity to act on the world and to judge the effects of our action….But the organization of work and our consumerist culture increasingly deprive us of this experience. American schools,  beginning in the 1990s, dismantled shop classes–which for me had been the most  intellectually stimulating classes—in favor of introductory computer classes, thus fostering the idea that the world had become a kind of scrim of information over which it was sufficient to glide. But in fact dealing with the world this way makes it opaque and mysterious, because the surface experience doesn’t require our intervention but instead cultivates our passivity and dependence.   That has political consequences.  If you don’t feel you can have a real effect on the world, then you don’t believe you have any real responsibility for it. I believe that the depoliticization we are witnessing in the modern world comes from this sense of a lack of agency. The financial crisis is another alarming symptom of the problem:  A trader makes a choice that will have an effect in three years and thousands of miles away.  The consequences of his action are a matter of indifference to him.  By contrast, repairing a motorcycle doesn’t allow you to have that kind of detachment.  If it doesn’t start, your failure jumps out at you and you know who is responsible.  In teaching you that it is not easy to ignore consequences, manual work provides a kind of moral education which also benefits intellectual activity.   

The Hedgehog Review will take up the subject of attention in its summer issue, and Crawford will be one of the featured contributors.

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Taylorism and the Work of Health

Frederick Taylor, the so-called “father of scientific management,” created the first bureaucratic system for measuring and constituting effort standards for work. His system for organizing work, which came to be called “Taylorism,” began with the conviction that “the natural instinct and tendency of men is to take it easy.” In order to overcome this lethargy and realize maximum worker efficiency and organizational calculability, Taylor designed a control structure over work performance that included scientific tests to ascertain the best of which a worker was capable and an incentive system to induce him or her to attain it.

Frederick Winslow Taylor

Frederick Winslow Taylor

The principles of Taylorism have had an enduring effect on job design practices. Something very like them is now being applied to the job of health.

Health, increasingly conceived as a kind of commodity that can be engineered, is work. And the new norms for the management of this health bears all the marks of the old Protestant work ethic. We are enjoined to scrupulously monitor ourselves, to be aware of and manage our susceptibility to illness, stay informed of the latest developments, and adjust our conduct, diet, and lifestyle as recommended by the experts. If we get sick, it’s quite likely our own fault; we should have eaten better, exercised more, drunk less, had that screening, and taken all other possible preventive actions, the scope of which is rapidly expanding. Medical illiteracy or a resigned attitude toward the future are not valid excuses; they are ethical failings.

Here’s the rub. What if we don’t work at this “health” hard enough? If much of our illness is thus self-inflicted, what is to be done? What about the impact on our effort at work? What about the potential costs?

A case in point. My university recently completed its open enrollment period, that time in the year when employers allow employees to make changes to their employer-sponsored benefit coverage. We have long received the occasional email encouraging participation in a wellness program or to sign up for a gym membership. But this year brought a new system of surveillance. Every employee was asked to take a health risk assessment and participate in a biometric screening. If you did both, you would be charged lower monthly medical premiums over the following year. A non-negligible savings for answering a few questions and letting them take some blood.

With the new surveillance, the university is following a growing trend to drive employees into health programs. According to a survey of nearly 800 companies conducted last spring by Aon Hewitt, the human resources consulting firm, some 83 percent of large and mid-size employers now offer “incentives” to employees for participating in programs that encourage them to “become more aware of their health status” and “take actions to improve their health.” In the HR-speak of the Aon news release about the survey findings, there are no penalties, only “incentives,” and no coercion, only “healthier personal decisions.” But the force behind the programs is unmistakable, and it is ratcheting upward.

Of the companies offering an “incentive,” most (79 percent) do so “in the form of a reward.” The rest either offer the incentive “in the form of a consequence” (5 percent)—read “financial penalty”—or in the form of “a mix of both rewards and consequences” (16 percent). But the “reward” talk may be misleading. My employer first raised the premium rates by roughly the amount of the reward, so the real effect was to financially penalize those unwilling to be measured.

Further, at 80 percent of the companies, the reward carrot comes with a compliance stick. More than half (56 percent) require employees to “actively participate in health programs, comply with medications or participate in activities like health coaching.” The other quarter (24 percent) link their incentives to “progress toward or attainment of acceptable ranges for biometric measures” like blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Apparently these efforts to hold people responsible for the state of their health are not working, or not working well enough. According to the survey, more sticks are coming. Most of the employers are planning to “impose consequences” on employees who do not take “appropriate actions for improving their health,” or are considering “tying incentives to program designs that require a focus on health 365 days a year.” With the arrival of an extraordinary array of new tracking devices in recent years, such as wearable digital sensors of biometric data, the body is becoming more transparent. Individuals can measure and monitor themselves all the time, giving employers new ways to measure and monitor employee progress.

The goal, it seems, of these reward-and-consequence schemes is the Taylorian one. Our health is work and we need expert supervision to determine and sticks/carrots to boost our effort levels to produce more of it. Taylor saw his system as promising both greater material wealth and social harmony. A win-win, as both employers and employees enjoyed the benefits of best-fit job placement and maximum daily output. The same cheery, no-conflict self-confidence infuses the deployment of the new schemes. Yes, there is the hope of cost-savings and greater productivity, but if our health is in our own hands, then surely only the indolent would resist the solicitude on offer.

 

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60 Minutes Bows to Amazon, Delivery Drones, and the Endless Joys of Disruption

60 Minutes has never been the journalistic paragon of its makers’ proud imaginings, but its slips have been particularly noticeable of late. Last month, the program banished correspondent Lara Logan and her producer for their Oct. 27 segment on the Benghazi consulate attack that credulously retailed a falsified account by security contractor Dylan Davies in his book The Embassy House. The imposed leaves of absence for the two journalists might strike some as a case of at least partial scapegoating. The greater sin had to have been committed  by whoever saw fit to assign Logan to a story on which she had already voiced strong critical views—and, even worse, to use an account that drew from a book published by CBS subsidiary Simon & Schuster without even acknowledging that connection.  As of yet, though, no higher-up heads have rolled.

Jeff Bezos

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos (Photo by Jurvetson | Flickr)

If Logan’s fall was a result of carelessness and weak journalistic ethics, the more recent 60 Minutes slather of adulation for Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos was journalism as an all-out travesty of itself.  In this uncritical piece of puffery, a resurrected-looking Charlie Rose marveled repeatedly over the “disruptive” brilliance of his subject before disclosing the big new new thing on Amazon’s horizon: delivery drones that will bring your Amazon orders to your doorstep (or rooftop or chimney or whatever) almost before you can click “send” on your order.

The introductory lines from Rose set the unswerving tone:

There has never been a company quite like Amazon. Conceived as an online book seller, Amazon has reinvented itself time and again, changing the way the world shops, reads and computes. Amazon has 225 million customers around the world. Its goal is to sell everything to everyone. The brainchild of Jeff Bezos, Amazon prides itself on disrupting the traditional way of doing things.

It’s hard to say enough about how indistinguishable this is from all those infomercials we’re now too familiar with. Is there ever a critical perspective offered, even a word of mild demurral? Nary a one. With “unprecedented access inside Amazon’s operations,”  does 60 Minutes even consider asking one of Santa’s “elves” in the distribution center what he or she thinks about working in this devoutly disruptive enterprise? ‘Fraid not. The only other voice we hear from is that of Amazon vice president Dave Clark, and he’s certainly not ready to dish.  (“Anything you want on, on Earth you’re gonna get from us,” Clark chirps).

Rose broaches the question of anti-competitive pricing, aimed at killing off any last remaining brick-and-mortar competitors or discouraging other wannabe disrupters:

Charlie Rose: Yeah, but I mean, there are areas where your power’s so great and your margin, you’re prepared to make it so thin that you can drive people out of business and, and you have that kind of strength. And people worry: Is Amazon ruthless in their pursuit of market share?

But gobstruck Rose seems to take Bezos’s answer as fully sufficient:

Jeff Bezos: The Internet is disrupting every media industry, Charlie, you know, people can complain about that, but complaining is not a strategy. And Amazon is not happening to book selling, the future is happening to book selling.

The future is happening to the news, too. And it’s just as ugly.  And, no, it’s not demonizing Bezos or Amazon to say that both they and we, the public, deserve the kind of hard-hitting coverage that has all but disappeared from TV news and that is struggling to survive in the old print media (one former pillar of which, The Washington Post, is now owned by Bezos).

Without the critical probing of journalism, who will challenge the assumptions, the hype, and even the dishonesty of those who are making and shaping the new economy and, through its huge influence, wide swaths of our culture? Of course, there are still devoted challengers out there willing to take on the giants. But the challengers are seldom the ones whose voices are magnified by the big media. Indeed, as a piece by tech writer Dan Lyons in The Huffington Post pointed out, Bezos couldn’t have put 60 Minutes to better strategic use if he’d arranged it himself:

Did Amazon control the timing of the story and insist that the piece must run on the night before Cyber Monday? Was this a condition of the deal in exchange for getting access to Bezos? I think you’d be naive to believe otherwise, but who knows? Maybe it was just a lucky coincidence.

But there’s another factor at work here. Bezos and Amazon are still reeling from the recent publication of a not entirely flattering book by Businessweek reporter Brad Stone. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon portrays Bezos as a ruthless tyrant and a “penny-pinching ballbuster,” as Gawker put it.

All that drone hype, Lyons explains, wasn’t even about drones, which more realistic FAA estimates say probably won’t fly anytime before 2026, if at all:

 But who cares? These drones weren’t created to carry packages. They were created, and put on display, to boost sales and buff up a CEO’s wounded pride. Toward that end, they worked like a charm.

And did so even while allowing Pioneer Bezos to drone on about the glories of disruption, blissfully heedless of what it does to countless disruptees who will at least be able to order whatever they want whenever they want until the last few cents on their credit cards expire.

With promotion like that, who needs advertising?

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