Saturday, August 20, 2011

The New York Review Of Books Reviewed

Moderation and discipline are said to be necessary for a good life. All the various elements in life should be balanced: work, play, love, friendship. Like citizens with citizens in a democracy, the parts of our lives can have their way as long as they don't interfere with the other parts.

Or maybe not. Also like in a democracy, the democracy serves the citizen and not the citizen the democracy, the parts of our lives should not serve an ordered whole of life.

We are the doer of each of the separate activities in different episodes of our personal stories, and the organization of the parts of ourselves as a whole serves us as the doer of one temporary thing after another.

We can love to excess, unlimited by friends or work or play. We can work to excess, unlimited by lovers or friends or play. We can be excessive in our friendships, unlimited by work and lovers and play. And we can play to excess too.

The infinite we seek is not pleasure in each of our partial activities, but knowledge of the unlimited mystery of what we are doing in this life, in this world.

I was wondering about the current issue of New York Review of Books, and went back and re-read these words.

The parts of the magazine, each perfect as possible, did not serve the whole of the magazine. No problem. But it was a problem that each part, conscientiously developed, did not have behind it a magazine that collected in a consistent way a view of the world. Much the contrary. Each part, each article, seemed to be sharp and without compromise in the pursuit of truth, but the magazine as a whole was going nowhere, was incoherent. There didn't seem to be someone there at the magazine responsible for reading the whole of it and trying to make sense of all the ideas in relation to each other. I thought that this might be the explanation for the failure of magazines like this to have any political effect. The only thing that can overcome an expectation of party prejudice and dismissal in advance on that ground is a display of individual integrity, of unbiased authority that comes from a demand for truth out of one's own experience, and here was an obvious case of failure to do so. If a magazine makes no attempt to make what it prints hold together, why should we think the ideas expressed there have anything more behind them than the local suggestions and personal needs of the moment? If ideas do not even hold well together with each other, why expect they hold a relation of truth to the world?

One article criticized scientific reduction of thoughts and feelings to observed activity in brain cells, but offered no explanation why anyone would want to do something so seemingly useless as say thoughts were "no more than" electrical activity. It seemed obvious to me that seeing ourselves as subject to uncontrollable forces had the strongest possible implications for economics, politics, individuality.

Another article criticized Google's invasion of the whole world's privacy by collecting personal information used to selectively direct advertising, but didn't go into why we make a demand for privacy in the first place, or discussed in detail the adversarial relation between privacy and advertising.

Another article criticized government practices that have repeatedly caused cycles of economic down-turn since 1970, with not a hint about why these cycles were allowed to recur or what we now can possibly do about it.

Another article criticized studies that raised doubt whether animals were capable of language, missing the point that an animal does not need language to be conscious, and without seeing that an animal without consciousness became evidence that uncontrollable, undefinable forces might exist in our own animal nature.

Starting with Google and privacy: privacy is required because certain things about ourselves more than others are liable to lead strangers to false conclusions. We don't go around naked because we don't want everyone indiscriminately to respond to us sexually: we don't want to exert a content-less force on all people around us. Privacy is a defense against ideas of forces and unconsciousness that owe their origin perhaps to witnessing the collective response of those around us. Privacy is a negative of advertising: it declines to offer, exactly as advertising makes a positive offer. This refusal to approach a stranger makes a point of the difference between friend and stranger that advertising negates. No matter how selectively Google offers its ads, advertisement is still the offer of a stranger: if the advertiser were known to you advertising would be unnecessary. Especially in times of great frequency of economic crime, when cheaters are omnipresent, the distinction between stranger and friend is important.

Obviously then the threat Google poses to privacy is related to the present massive cheating in business, banking, regulation, the massive misrepresentation of economic principles, the unwillingness of rich to pay taxes and support the state they benefit from, the repeated failure to learn from economic history. The decrease in privacy Google threatens us with goes along perfectly with, makes easier the successful and progressive increase in economic crime.

The rich give in to what they would like to see as the uncontrollable and mysteriously formless force of their greed, and why should they not? They have no choice in the matter, in their view: there is nothing in common between people driven by content-less, formless unconscious impulses. That animals really are without consciousness shows the truth that human sympathy is an illusion. There is no content to be shared between people or sympathized with. To believe otherwise, they argue, would mean being untrue to our nature as animals.

If we are to oppose the economic, political, and social dangers we are facing, we need magazines that read like they have a human editor. A person who is not subject to forces, not unconscious, someone who has protected his privacy and retains an ability to learn from his own history, who will make sure his own history has enough consistency to learn from.