Meditation on Art

We want to breathe the art of wit when we sit for our meditations. Art, from the Art of Altamira to the the Art of the Deal, is, we don’t shun this bold statement, first and foremost a celebration. We imagine anthropological researchers digging up objects with no evident usefulness. What to do with them? There are many younger accounts (we are still talking about the first hominids, not about the Neolithic revolution) that establish the connection between them and superstitions. But older than our need to understand the world and fill in our perceived gaps in the fabric of causality with the supernatural, is our need to celebrate.

Celebration is play organized around a common purpose, and fosters a strong bond in tribes. Since this is a meditation, we are allowed to think this here without providing footnotes or references. Celebration is as old as tribal cooperation itself, we submit. Let’s not forget to breathe.

So, art began as act and celebration. Dance and music were the first art forms (they leave no fossil traces so that’s not a falsifiable hypothesis). This communal dancing and singing wasn’t always the most efficient way to bond, especially in times of hardships. As our symbolical minds became more powerful, we began to create artefacts. A visual artwork is the shadow of a celebration.

We breathe calmly and feel the rest of our body. We now define an artwork as a human-made object that celebrates its own existence. We quickly check if this is true from daguerrotypes to Duchamp to David. Of course, an object cannot celebrate anything. That is ‘just’ our interpretation. We are always allowed to rephrase this within Kantian “apostrophes”: an artwork is a human-made object that its observer is able to see as celebrating its own existence. I like this definition that feels Nietzschean.

Yes, there is a nature of the artwork. We can trace it back through archeology of the mind, following our proclivity to celebrate.

Meditation on Art was originally published on Meandering home

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Meditation on the sacred

May we think about the sacred without informing ourselves as thoroughly as possible about our species’ rich religious traditions? Isn’t our meditation predestined to be a desecration, a profanity, no matter what we might arrive at? Philosophical contemplation of the sacred seems to be implicitly critical of the religious authority that decrees what is sacred and what not (or: whatnot). We take a breath and smile.

We confront authority if we must. But first we remember the concept of homo sacer, taken from Roman Law and brought to our attention by Giorgio Agamben’s 1998 eponymous book. The political category of the sacred or the ‘bare life’ means those we can be killed without punishment, but cannot be sacrificed in a religious ritual. His idea was that this is becoming paradigmatic in our era. The definition of the sovereign is that which produces the bare life. Think about refugees. We breathe again, somewhat heavily.

The sacred is not simply the supernatural. It is that which not belongs in our narrative, that which would stain our rituals, so it is to be ignored at all cost. This idea of endangering the narrative we can generalize. Perhaps we should explore how the sacred emerged in human tribes, when they were in the verge of mastering language as ‘that which cannot be mentioned without negating it’. This is a vague description of an alleged human instinct that co-evolved with the language instinct. Can we think of some examples? Tacit agreements based on mutual respect and goodwill cannot be spelled out without negating their voluntary and friendly character. A gentleman’s agreement is a promise, not a formal contract. Keeping a promise can be experienced as a sacred obligation.

I wildly claim that the instinct that allows us to make arrangements for sex on a second date without ever mentioning the word, lies at the heart of the religious experience as well. When more literate peoples emerged in the greater Levant area, this had to be made explicit. God began his evolution as ‘He who cannot be named’. We imagine sex and God as experiences that go beyond language, and hence beyond the community (while still in the service of community). The dimension of the sacred is the imagination of the unspeakable. We want to think about this more, but for now we take a few breaths and consider them sacred.

Meditation on the sacred was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on freedom

Breathe in and think about a beginning. How to start a meditation on freedom? Do we have an entry point, a route that we can follow? Let’s clear our head of all that has been said about freedom. Smile. We are going to choose freely what we mean by freedom here. We are gaming ourselves. It is an existential.

So we are aware of Libet’s experiments. We raise our arm first, and the neurons that are associated with our decision to do so fire some milliseconds later. Our body decides, our consciousness follows and creates an evolutionarily useful internal theatre of the free will. It seems there is nothing more to say about the subject. What we call freedom is a certain fysiological dance of axons and dentrites.

Lo and behold! We have begun to find freedom ‘boring’. Can we still wonder about the ‘privateness’ of a phenomenon? We have been here a million times, we can accept that freedom is a ‘dance’ of the elements. Some philosophers have insisted that such dance needs to be indeterministic because that is how we experience our freedom. Something inside us must be god-like, they seem to think, for we are the creators of our inner worlds. Perhaps the quantum indecidibility is what makes freedom possible on an ontological level. The thought that whatever I will decide next was already ‘written in the stars’ contradicts our experience of freedom, and the latter certainly should count as a genuine source of knowledge?

Let’s breathe a bit more. Thinking is praxis. And so is a meditation on freedom! A deterministic view that we can hold about freedom can lead us to discard the concept of responsibility and punishment. This is of course simplistic and lacks the elegance of philosophical reasoning. The decision to get rid of punishment and the concept of responsibility itself is ‘inevitable’ or ‘automatic’ in this story. But if we decide nót to get rid of responsibility some causal chain must have lead to it and in this story we accept causal chains. What we are saying (intentionally in a vague way) is that such conclusions from the alleged absense of freedom require some sort of ‘loyalty’ to a perceived truth. But loyalty is a concept of the same category these thinkers want to get rid of!

We close our eyes. Breathe again. We defend, against all too quick naturalists, the enigma of our freedom. When we say it is a ‘necessary illusion’ we don’t mean this lightly. Can intelligent machines experience freedom? Imagine a robot that has passed the Turing test. I think we can never tell, just like our human freedom must remain an enigma for each other. This humanist consideration would be an argument in favor of some legal status of machines that can interact like humans. I find this a hard discussion.

It is time to get up. Feel our living bodies again. Practise awareness. The freedom that we mean is the experience, not of an abstract moment in which we can or can not lift our hand, but the experience of a fulfilled life.

Meditation on freedom was originally published on Meandering home

The be-who-thy-be new age bullshit

I watched a well-intended speech today for fifteen year old level A students. The gist was that life happens according to your own internal clock, not according to the timetable imposed on us by society. It’s okay not to be married at 30 or graduating after 25 or getting your first job at 27. Did you know that JK Rowling first got published at the ripe old age of 32 and that Morgan Freeman got his big break at 52? Applause. Just be who you are, follow your dreams and eventually you will succeed.

That is the message. Eventually. No pressure, believe me more than you can believe yourself: you too will eventually make it big. Your story will be a success story. It has to be that way because if you believe hard enough, the universe will conspire to make it happen.

It is precisely this message that puts more pressure on people. Concrete goals such as graduating college at 22 or having 2 kids by age 33 are replaced by you-know-best-yourself goals. This absence of a yardstick to measure your own achievements against can backfire terribly. Insecure people will get more insecure and now they don’t have a way to prove themselves wrong. In the decadent be-who-thy-be philosophy, they cannot be wrong.

Guidance is replaced by slogans that smack of wisdom and the tragedy is that they are irrefutable from the perspective of the be-who-we-tell-you-to-be. The 15 year olds can not be expected to be critical, but from the educators who purvey this type of happy-go-lucky doublespeak peptalk we can demand that they study Kafka and Orwell and make their Good News less intimidating.

We want to educate critical minds not neurotic narcissists. Young people should not be seduced to manufacture only their unique success story in the face of a society that won’t reward them, I think. But do I have a solution? No. The best advice I can offer is to skip this soft of commencement talks whenever possible.

The be-who-thy-be new age bullshit was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on friendship

Close your eyes. Breathe calmly. You sit here alone, master of your own thoughts. Imagine I am talking to you. I want to know what friendship means. Quickly, construct a differentiation. Which opposite op ‘friend’ have you found? Mere acquaintance? Or: enemy? But what can we say about a thing of which we cannot determine the opposite? Try, then, to think of the similarities between your friends, the once that don’t seem to have anything else in common than being your friend. They are committed, I guess you said that? There is some mutual interest in each other’s life, some emotional investment.

Take a deeper breath. Investment, interest. We are using financial terminology. We describe friendship in terms of personal gain. Could it be otherwise? What if friendship is more fundamental and came logically ‘before’ our identity? The thought that the socialness of our being constitutes our identity is a common one. We are friends before we are persons. As toddlers, we refer to each other, we anticipate each other’s behavior, develop an emotional attitude to each other, all before we develop a sense of self. And children who grow up deprived of social connections make do with imaginary friends, because social behavior is hard-wired. Or at least, I say it’s worth thinking of it that way.

True friendship should escape a reduction to a mutually beneficial relation. That is another common thought. There is that special something that we can’t classify, a magical ingredient in our friendships. Smile. We could explain that irreducible quality from the horrors of its opposite, that can’t be understood in terms in interaction between discreet objects either. I mean the mental agony of loneliness. The deep eternity in which we become gradually aware of the absence of any other mind, while we exhaust our imagination until we can’t make the voice that talks back at us seem like anything else but ourselves. The point at which we ‘go crazy’.

Friendship is something we must celebrate. It is the essence of celebration itself. Breathe in deeply. Breathe out. Does friendship come before the friend? Are we imposing our preconceptions of what ‘friendship’ is supposed to be on our friends? Or can we learn about friendship from a friend? Don’t we need the first aspect in order to recognize someone as a friend, and the second one in order to treat someone as a friend?

Friendship is a role. But the rules and expections of that role can always be challenged between friends. Friends can break up, or grow closer because of this. Breathe some more. Let us understand the fragility of friendship and the vulnerability of our modest meditation on it.

Meditation on friendship was originally published on Meandering home

Small big data

Today’s hype is Big Data. As with other hypes, such as ‘sharing economy’, ‘cloud’, ‘blockchain’, the hype is simultaneously promoted as a commercial instrument that is indispensable for companies and as a pervasive phenomenon that redefines the fabric of society.

Every big corporation sits on a heap of big data about their customers. Statistical analysis of the data enables them to know their customers better than they know themselves, and this puts them in a unique position. Smaller competitors can, by definition, not know their customers as well as a major corporation with huge big data, like Google, Facebook, Ebay or Amazon, can.

Big data has always been around. Only the computing power to process it and derive conclusions from it is new. Also small businesses and private people are surrounded with big data, but they don’t realize it. I like to define ‘big data’ as follows:

| Big data are data that allow for conclusions that go further than intuition.

So, even if there aren’t millions of data points, we can speak of ‘big data’ in a meaningful way. For example, a mom and pop store has data about popular products. They might know patterns of consumption, such as an increase in sales of sweets around holidays. They have always dealt with such data with their intuition and tend to doubt if there is more to it. Analyzing their ‘small big data’ could give them some new insight that is useful for their business.

However, tiny companies, even if they are convinced of the importance of their modestly big data, can’t afford an analyst team of data scientists. They could use websites to help them analyze their data and exchange insights on online platforms. This could lead to a great increase in efficiency, for example in the area of supply chain and stock management. ‘Big data’ should not be something only the big guys can play with, all data that, upon analysis, can surprise us, is big.

Small big data was originally published on Meandering home

Freelance bullshit jobs

I have been fascinated with anthropologist David Graeber‘s concept of bullshit jobs for a while. I have written a bullshit job poem and a bullshit job rap. In this video, Graeber mentions an informal poll he conducted on Twitter to classify bullshit jobs. He arrives at five categories:

  1. Flunkies.. the people sitting around doing nothing, often simply to enhance the prestige of their bosses
  2. Goons.. the people who do things that serve no rational need in society, such as telemarketers or indeed the army
  3. Duct tapers.. the people who fix a problem that doesn’t need to exist in the first place
  4. Box tickers.. the people who create illusions around the work, for example by ‘collecting data’ that serves no other purpose than to keep them busy
  5. Task masters.. the middle management supervising the workers where in fact, no supervision is needed

I like this list.

From my vantage point as a freelance bullshit jobber, I would like to add a footnote. For Graeber, the bullshit factor is about the how of the job, not the what. More precisely, it is about how a company uses labor to achieve its goal, not about the nature of that goal itself. The category of the goons comes close to a critique of that goal, but it still presupposes some potentially meaningful product of service that the company wishes to force upon consumers.

The happiness factor

I admit it: I’d like to jack up the number of bullshit jobs so it gets a more revolutionary ring to it. What is left out are all the jobs creating the consumerist demand needed to keep the system going, the manipulation of people into enthusiastic consumerists who require purchasing goods or services for their satisfaction. This is not only about annoying cold call telemarketing to customers who are not interested, but about every consumer, every day. We learn from happiness research in the US that beyond $60k surplus happiness flattens. This means that beyond that threshold, more material possessions doesn’t make people happier. Hence, it is not a rational need of society to produce an abundance of goods and services when they demonstrably cost more (I am referring to the externalized cost for society and the environment here) than they will benefit.

The freelance factor

Graeber’s analysis is limited to the realm of salaried labor and mostly full time employment. In the world of freelancers, ‘laborers’ intentionally work on bullshit tasks to pay the bills. They are confronted with the fact that they perform bullshit jobs ‘just for the money’ every time they respond and ‘apply’ for them on an online job platform.

Online freelancers typically do the work of goons, duct tapers and box tickers, because the other two require physical presence. My bullshit tasks are usually in the goon category (eg. translating manuals that nobody reads about a product that makes nobody happier). Freelancers at least have the advantage that they own their own time. So they can, if they are lucky enough to stumble upon it, also do meaningful work. For example, I might write some critical essay about our work culture and get paid for it, or do anything that has the net effect of making some people a little bit happier.

For the sake of our identity, we must imagine a purpose, simply because it is too painful to deal with the implicit nihilism that bullshit jobbing is on a daily basis.

Because freelance bullshit jobbing adds the extra dimension of the explicit confrontation with the bullshit, it can corrupt our mind. For the sake of our identity, we must imagine a purpose, simply because it is too painful to deal with the implicit nihilism that bullshit jobbing is on a daily basis.

If we add in the freelance activities by independent contractors who hate what they do and the jobs that can be shown to decrease our overall happiness, I think the amount of bullshit jobs has already crossed a critical threshold. It is time to become aware of it, because it means that any serious economic crisis in the coming years could turn into a real revolution.

Freelance bullshit jobs was originally published on Meandering home