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Friday Afternoon Confessional: Reading List

I confess I put my life on hold for the last 12 months chasing a ghost. It took me more than a month just to start to remember how life was. Was it worth it? I confess I have no idea. Am I done chasing ghosts? I confess my best answer is: time will tell.

The piles of books which have amassed to the left and right of me do suggest I kept on reading though. I confess I want to boast about that.

To my left, pile n°1: Kripke, Naming & Necessity; Bolaño, Amberes, El Tercer Reich & Estrella Distante; Zweig, Schachnovelle.

Across older piles lying open on pp. 150-151 for reasons I confess I forgot entirely: Gadamar, Elogio de la teoría. Which brings me to the piles to my right featuring more Gadamer, On Education, Poetry And History as well as Wer bin Ich und wer bist Du. The latter sits on top of Fitch, Saul Kripke and Peinado, Futbolistas de izquierdas. Further down in that pile: Gass, Middle C and the almost most recent one: Piketty, Le capital au XXIe siècle.

To my left, pile n° 2: Jaeger, Paideia: los ideales de la cultura griega & Aristoteles; Grundlegung einer Geschichte seiner Entwicklung.

I confess all this name dropping leaves me feeling I really have something to confess about. I am unsure however whether it is arrogance or lack of reading quality/quantity (certainly as far as fiction goes). In order not to have to dwell on that issue I’ll just mention what I’m reading now (& only talk about that one below the fold): Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You. As you can tell from the Capital letters in the title I’m turning to vulgarized science from time to time (I blame Dawkins for that) but I’m not addicted to it, yet (I might add now I’m at it that I quit smoking if, I confess, without quitting nicotine given I just have put an “e-” before my cigarettes).

I confess it was not my plan to write that many words before I got to this pink book by (the maybe venerable) Steven Johnson and the Flynn effect.

I may be a sucker for cultural optimism but this little book was too pink even for my taste. It was too pink right up to the point where all the positive effects of The Sleeper Curve (I guess the upward motion of our collective IQ thanks to the consumption of popular culture is what he meant with that notion) were reduced to a single cause: it made economic sense to smarten us up instead of dumb us down. From that point onward it was too dark for even the most purple of my tastes.

So what if it makes sense to create robotic consumers with a high IQ (g, whatever) instead of a low one? Is that the kind of progress we need to be resigned to?

Not that I disagree with popular culture becoming much more intricate and engaging (as a recent Game of Thrones convert I wave the white flag). The question is whether it is this evolution which is causing people addicted to complexity which in turn leads to an economic incentive for cultural production to pry on this addiction which … (also, whilst in general a multidisciplinary approach is laudable, certainly when it is initiated from the life sciences, dragging Prigogine into everything is a pretty simplistic thing to do). Or whether people get smarter because they get educated and that mass producers of culture get trumped by people actually creating something new.

As a sucker for cultural optimism I go with the idea that the economy is following the sophistication and emancipation of the people and not vice versa. I would clap my hands if the Flynn effect reverses but people develop an allergy for populism.

Speaking of which, I don’t think the Flynn effect has done anything to break populism and propaganda although it might have sophisticated both in the race to the top. This might explain why the XXIst century is seeing spikes in populism, specifically in the developed countries: it’s a populism that has developed the potential to deny it is linked to the populism of the barbarians. It’s Enlightenment populism and it comes in a new package: not the shouting, shooting version but the suiting, sarcastic, anti-social version. The version where ‘they’ are an amorphous lot where their strangeness on the inside. And walking amongst us as well, people not to be killed but cured (unless they refuse to be like ‘us’, in which case we have to stand firm & so on & so forth).

There might be something in this pinkish Sleeper Curve but the emphasis is surely on Sleeper and not on waking up. It never took a genius to pick out the stupidities in society. Neither is any stupidity too gross for it to convert at least one genius to its ranks of enthusiasts.

So from a little pinkish book to a rather huge white opus; to Thomas Piketty and his contention that the only true equalizing force in society is education and that that force is currently not strong enough for the destabilizing natural tendency of money to concentrate (maybe this is a place where to insert some Prigogine with a less pinkish undertone). So instead of relying on a curve we might do well to invest in education – true, we might invest in education being perceived as less boring, less condescending, less one-way but it would still be education instead of entertainment. Invest and create a curve which is strong enough to counterbalance the dark forces of Satan’s invisible hand. Invest and get it to a point where conditions for culture production are such that actual creative individuals get a chance to create Breaking Bad alongside the stuff by Piketty.

I’m a cultural optimist in that I believe we tend to learn. One of the things we learn is that education is important. A side effect of that is that we tend to learn more. I believe there is evidence to show that are learning will outpace our natural path to destruction. I hope we learned in the XXth century enough to avoid a monumental relapse in the XXIst century. This hope was once a belief that started to fade until just this hope remains.

The threat is indeed not popular culture dumbing us down. The threat is that the well off bastards are smartening up. The hope is that they smart up quick enough to understand that it’s also best for them to quit whilst they’re ahead.

More than 1000 words, that’s going to be my minimum weekly writing diet until my brain feels like it’s back.

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May 3, 2014 - Posted by | bookstores, economics, Friday Afternoon Confessional, shameless self-promotion, teaching | ,

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