Wednesday, May 28, 2008

More "Sex and the City"

Last night in Manhattan hundreds of young women lined up around the block to see the first screening of the feature film version of the great HBO series: Sex and the City.

It was almost as though their lives depended on whether or not Carrie married Mr. Big. I do not mean that to be as glib as it sounds, but, to this outsider, it seems as though young women believe that this movie will provide the answers that they have been looking for.

An answer to the question posed by Lori Gottlieb in The Atlantic: Should you "settle for Mr. Good Enough?" Or else, an answer to the question that I have heard numerous times: Is there a price tag on the SATC lifestyle?

The women who have asked this latter question were not thinking of the cost of all those shoes, but the potential cost to one's future prospects for happiness.

These are the right questions. But why does anyone think that a feature film will provide the answers? Worse yet, why do so many young women choose Carrie and Co. as role models? What does it mean when so many people emulate fictional characters?

However entertaining they are, these characters are not real. If you decide to emulate them, don't be surprised if you find yourself wondering why you don't have a life.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Is It Good to Blog?

Several people have written me about an article in this month's Scientific American that asks: Is Blogging Good for You? Apparently, science has shown that expressing your feelings is good for your mental health. And this would seem to contradict what I said in my last post about Emily Gould. It would also seem to contradict Gould's personal experience of blogging.

Has the author of this article jumped to the wrong conclusion? Sadly, this appears to be the case.

The research on self-expression seems largely to concern a limited group of people: cancer patients, AIDS sufferers, and surgery patients. For those groups, talking about their experience of illness seems to facilitate healing.

Why so? A serious, perhaps terminal, illness causes people to withdraw from society, to the point where their isolation and despair undermine their health.

Normally, they will not want to burden friends and family with the details of chemotherapy or an exotic illness. Moreover, friends and family will also begin preparing for life without them, making them feel like they are consigned to eternity.

If they can find a group of fellow-sufferers this will function as an artificial community, roughly as AA meetings do. Connecting with others, even under abnormal circumstances, can surely be therapeutically beneficial.

Obviously, this has nothing to do with bloggers who compulsively overexpose themselves to the public at large. Talking about your experience of chemotherapy is not equivalent to sharing what you felt when your lover farted in bed. The first restores a semblance of dignity; the second jettisons whatever shreds of dignity you had left.

Besides, science has also shown that playing duplicate bridge will also improve your immune system. Without going into the intricacies of the game that I love, I will merely say that you cannot be good at bridge if you think that the bridge table is a good place to express your feelings.

Duplicate bridge is a competitive game where focus, discipline, concentration, and dispassionate thought produce the best results. I would venture that other competitive activities-- like golf and tennis-- require similar character traits.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

An Expensive Way to Make a Living

Former editor Emily Gould is clearly the woman of the hour. Her skewed portrait graced the cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine this week.

Inside Gould wrote her own profile, explaining how she learned that it is not such a good thing to wash your dirty linen in public. Her conclusion: if you have to expose your intimate life, make sure you have a way to delete it.

Have you ever noticed that the most famous of the self-exposure junkies are women? There seems to be no market for the intimate secrets of a Julian Allison or a Stephen Klein. There are no lines of eager adolescents waiting for the latest version of Boys Gone Wild.

So, women in particular can make a living by exposing intimate details about their bodies and their selves. Who knew?

But why was Gould so hellbent on blogging her private life? Her response: "I had the right to say whatever I wanted." Not only that, but: "I was being creative...." In her blog she could exercise maximum expressive freedom. Her blog was: "a public place where I would always be allowed to write, without supervision, about how I felt. Even having to take into account someone else's feelings about being written about felt like being stifled in some essential way."

For reasons that escape me she calls this "empowerment." This means that the term has largely outlived its meaning.

Of course, Gould's reasoning is a rehash of the pseudo-wisdom offered up by the therapy culture.

As we know, many people pay lip service to these phrases and then go on with their lives. Women bloggers like Emily Gould and Julia Allison take it a step further. They make it their mission to show us what happens when you make them rules to live by.

Express yourself freely without concern for anyone's feelings and you will, as Gould attests, turn your life into permanent psychodrama.

Much is wrong with Gould's reasoning. First, she errs by couching it in the language of human rights. True enough, she has the "right" to say what she wants, and not just in her blog. But, so what.

You also have the right to do things that are rude, crude, and lewd. Does that mean that you ought to do them? I think not.

You also have the right to humiliate yourself and to rain emotional abuse on your friends, your family, and your neighbors. Does that mean that you ought to do it? Unless you want to suffer the mental anguish that Emily Gould describes in such arresting and painful detail, I would recommend that you avoid such forays into unbridled self-exposure.

Second, Gould seems to believe that when she is tempted to be considerate of her boyfriend's feelings, she is "stifling" the free flow of her intimacy onto her blog.

The compulsive blogger will inevitably hurt other people, but if those unenlightened others object it must mean that they do not love her enough.

When Gould humiliates her boyfriend by sharing his private thoughts, feelings, or actions she is abusing him emotionally. To call it creative self-expression is simply a culturally-sanction delusion.

She might feel that she is connecting with the world, but that world is either laughing at her or is pleading with her to stop.

After all, it is painful to see talented young women selling their dignity for the aleatory thrill of fame.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

High Self-Esteem

I once read a review in the Times where Michiko Kakutani described a book as: "a tortuous journey from self-pity to self-congratulation."

It was the most concise definition of psychotherapy I had ever seen. Isn't therapy promoted as a difficulty journey from low to high self-esteem... a journey that completely obscures any obligation to act ethically, thus to become a better person.

Feeling good about yourself is not at all the same thing as becoming a good person.

When you are having problems therapy seems to want you to complain about them... to express your feelings, to share them with the world. Doesn't that imply that you should not think in terms of what you should be doing to solve the problem?

Sometimes people go to therapy specifically because they do not want to deal with the problem; they resent the notion that anyone would try to guide them toward a better way of living their lives. They are proud to make their own mistakes and will fight anyone who wants to deprive them of that right.

Self-congratulation expresses well what therapy takes to be high self-esteem. It implies that it doesn't matter whether you do the right thing, get it right or wrong, do well or do poorly, show good sportsmanship or bad manners.

When you achieve self-congratulation, you can feel good about yourself no matter how well or poorly you performed.

Then, if you are the only one congratulating yourself you can get mad at the world for not accepting you as you really are.

This therapeutic unethic does not allow you to be right or wrong; it does not allow for aspiration and ambition; it does not recognize objective standards against which you can evaluate your efforts. Thus, it deprives you of the opportunity to better yourself.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sweat the Small Stuff, 2

I was just reading an article on about how not to get a job. Many of the listed errors are rather obvious, but if people continue to need reminding, then perhaps we do not all understand them well enough.

Where the article emphasizes job interviews, its points pertain to many business transactions: meeting a potential new client, customer, supplier, or associate.

So, the article is about now not to make a good first impression.

Begin with inappropriate dress. Clothes still make the man or woman, and a profession appearance is the first impression you will make. Get it wrong and your prospects will instantly decline.

Of course, you know what it means to look professional. You have watched television shows where stylists transform frogs into princes and princesses, seemingly over night.

Whether the subjects have gained a new glamor or a new manliness or just a new look... they always close the show by proclaiming that they feel great about themselves and have gained a new sense of confidence.

Unfortunately, this gives us the impression that a professional appearance can be turned on and off. You get a new haircut, put on a new suit, whiten your teeth; then you can go out and strut your stuff. Your high self-esteem will be infectious.

Or it won't. If you walk around all the time in stained sweats, unshaven and unshorn, when you put on the new suit and have your hair cut,you might look like you are playing dress-up. And if you look comfortable in an outfit that feels like alien skin, you will not exude confidence. You will look fake.

It takes time to grow into a new look, a new outfit, or a new professional attitude.

If you only put it on for special occasions, do not be surprised if your relationship with the potential employer, client, or customer is limited to one special occasion.

It is not enough to make good appearance a staple of your job interviews or client need to make it a habit.

Next, mistake, guaranteed to make a bad impression: badmouthing other people. It could be your ex-boss, your colleagues, associates, or partners. Or it could include your spouse, children, and neighbors.

People do this because they believe that making someone else look bad makes them look good. It doesn't.

Or else, they may have gone to a fancy college where critical theory convinced them that finding fault is a sign of superior intelligence. It isn't.

A habit of badmouthing means that you are not a team player and that you will spend your time disrupting disrupting whatever group you find yourself in.

The last mistake, for today, is revealing too much personal information. It could be in a first interview, a first client, call, or a meeting with new associates. It could also-- God forbid!-- by on your blog.

The therapy culture might have told you that true communication involves expressing your feelings openly and honestly. The trouble is: this makes you look unprofessional. It makes you look like you are easily distracted from the task at hand.

Moral exhibitionism may be legal tender in your therapist's office, but that is because therapists have been trained to overcome their normal human tendencies to reciprocate. Anyone else will take your indiscreet disclosures as a demand to do the same.

If you picked up this character flaw in your therapist's office, make sure you leave it there. But not before asking why he or she has been encouraging you to develop bad habits.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Express your what?

If repression is the problem, is expression the solution?

Many people still believe that we suffer because we repress our feelings and impulses. This means that self-expression is the solution. Much of the therapy culture is built on the idea that expressing what we have inside is fundamentally a good thing... in terms of mental hygiene.

If you express affection, then that will bring you closer to others... unless, of course, they don't feel the same way about you. And if you express too much, you might well embarrass yourself... which would not make you feel good at all.

But if you express negative emotions, like anger, you will get them out of your system. Since anger is a toxic mental substance, getting it out will supposedly make you feel better.

True enough, when you let your pent up anger fly, you might feel a momentary sense of relief. Yet,if you express the wrong emotion at the wrong time to the wrong person under the wrong circumstances you will, upon reflection, feel like you have made a fool of yourself.

If your anger has no place in the conversation, it will merely reflect badly on you.

How did we come to believe in the palliative value of self-expression? It did not just spring forth from Freud's overheated brain.

In fact, we probably learned it from Romantic artists. Didn't they argue that art is the highest form of self-expression? And didn't they claim that art was the cure for adolescent angst?

Presumably, they held the adolescent belief that they were anguished because the world was refusing to listen to all that they had to say. And we all know that adolescents have a great deal to say. If only they could get it all out, they would be liberated and the world would be saved.

The trouble was: art becomes art when it moves other people, when it speaks to them. Art becomes art when it speaks to people who do not live in the neighborhood. Art must communicate with a variety of people from a variety of cultures at different times and places. You don't really believe that your personal feelings automatically interest anyone beyond your immediate circle of friends, do you?

A now-forgotten literary critic, I. A. Richards, once said that the key to producing a painting is the moment when the artist steps back from the canvas to look at his work with a different set of eyes. If he cannot do that,he can never overcome the illusion that the value of his work lies in how he felt when he was painting it.

More succinctly: if you can't edit you can't write.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Is It Art?

By definition, when an object is art it does not induce us to go out and do something. Beginning with Aristotle's idea that tragedy produces an emotional catharsis, aesthetics has usually argued that art produces static emotions.

Propaganda tells you what to think and then tries to get you to do something about it. Perhaps to vote for a candidate; perhaps to join a revolution. Advertising tries to get you to buy something. Both try to get you to take action; neither counts as art.

This is why-- in case you were wondering-- psychotherapists, beginning with Freud, have had been so averse to to offering advice and guidance. In their view your life is an unrealized work of art. They would not be helping you to bring it to realization if they were offering guidance about how to conduct your life.

This is why so many therapists insist that life is a story and that cure involves becoming your own fully realized creation... the author of your own psychodrama.

The real question is this: why do therapists need scientific training to produce living theater?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Gather ye rosebuds...

Just in time for Mother's Day a government commission in Switzerland has determined that plants have rights too. They have accused us all of being entirely too disrespectful of these living organisms.

Thankfully, these wise folk made an exception for harvests. Otherwise the McCormick reaper would merit the infamy associated with Dr. Guillotin's invention. Breathe a sigh of relief here. If the commission had not excepted foodstuffs, digging into a bowl of Wheaties would have made you a cereal killer.

Bad puns aside, the commission made no such exception for cut flowers. In its view cutting a flower was like decapitating it. But, they did manage to qualify this rule. Plucking the petals of a daisy is not an act of mutilation. Sentimental folk that they are, the Swiss commissioners will allow you to sacrifice all the petals you want in your quest for true love.

Sad to say, I am not making this up. Apparently, the commissioners missed class the day they taught metaphor.

Which leads us to Mother's Day. Everyone knows that roses are the perfect Mother's Day gift. If you had forgotten, let this post be a reminder. The trouble is, if you are a Swiss ethicist, sending a bouquet of roses makes you a serial killer.

So,Swiss ethicists have managed to create a situation where you are supposed to feel bad about doing the right thing. If you do not have enough to feel guilty about, send flowers.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Unhappy Endings

It is always fun to engage with a serious thinker, so I am happy to offer a few comments on an article by the always-instructive Martha Nussbaum. It is called, "Stages of Thought," and is published in The New Republic.

In it Nussbaum reviews several books on Shakespeare and philosophy and attempts to draw conclusions about human psychology. In the process she adds some life lessons.

There are several problems with her commentary. The books, and Nussbaum's article, focus largely on tragedy. But why do philosophers and psychotherapists always draw life lessons from tragedy? This unfortunate theoretical habit did not begin with Freud, but he certainly helped enshrine it in the culture.

At best, tragedies are cautionary. They tell you what not to do, not how to conduct your life.

Beyond that, why does Nussbaum assume so easily that Shakespeare was offering us "real life." Why accept that Othello was a man, that Desdemona was a woman, that Romeo and Juliet convey young love, and that Shakespeare's version of Antony and Cleopatra express a mature love relationship.

Is Shakespeare providing something like an extracted, universal essence of human behavior? If so you will have no difficulty believing that our true human motivations coincide with those of Oedipus.

Try a different angle. Imagine that Othello is a fictional character; idem for Desdemona, Hamlet, Romeo, and Juliet. Like Antony and Cleopatra, they may be based on real people. They were not created out of nothing, but were derived from models.

Now, ask yourself this: Do you believe that a painting offers the truth about the artist's model? Doesn't art transform reality? Aren't the rules of storytelling different from the rules of social interaction? Why do you assume that fiction offers a higher truth?

Strangely, Nussbaum becomes so invested in the notion that Antony and Cleopatra represent the best of an adult love relationship that she claims that their love had nothing to do with their tragic ending.

If that were true Shakespeare would be a decidedly inferior playwright. The play may not be the greatest of the great tragedies, but it is certainly not as flawed as Nussbaum's observations would have us believe.

Normally, real life does not make for good stories. When it does, something has clearly gone wrong. Besides, why do we imagine that Romeo and Juliet represent young love more than, say, Beatrice and Benedict.

I will not say that art has nothing to do with human behavior, but I would limit the scope: tragic heroes represent an extreme of human possibility, they do not represent the truth of human being.

What life lessons does Nussbaum draw? Trotting out D. W. Winnicott's distinction between the true and false self, she declares that the true self is childlike, vulnerable, emotional, and receptive. The true self resembles your inner child.

The false self, in contrast, wants to be competent and in control. It complies with external rules and conforms to social norms. According to Nussbaum and Winnicott the false self is like a mask that is deployed to hide human vulnerability and childlike silliness.

Of course, the false self sounds like normal adult behavior. By the lights of this theory the progress of human life and the process of human maturation are nothing more than a systematic repression of our warm, fuzzy inner children.

If this is true then the ability to function as a responsible adult in society represents loss. You may feel that you have, in growing up, gained wisdom and experience. You may feel that your ability to exercise self-control is a good thing. The therapy culture says otherwise.

According to two of its most distinguished theorists, life is a downhill run that always ends badly. Is it any wonder that people who feed at this theoretical trough become depressed?

By Nussbaum's reading Othello was a soldier who repressed his vulnerable, silly, emotional inner child. This latter returned with a vengeance in the form of pathological jealousy.

Here Nussbaum is offering a life lesson. Show your vulnerability, allow yourself to be emotional, give vent to your infantile silliness... and you will have a good adult love relationship, like Antony and Cleopatra.

Nussbaum is saying that as we grow up we should bring our infantile selves along for the ride. She counsels us against putting away the toys of childhood.

Think about it. Do you believe that a man or a woman could succeed in a position of leadership if he or she were to display vulnerability, emotionality, or plain silliness. Can anyone lead by showing inconstancy and weakness?

As it happens, Shakespeare did not think so. Were she not as infatuated with tragedy, Nussbaum might have recalled what Prince Hal, become King Henry V, told Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 2. Addressing the person who surely represented his "true self" and who was pleading to come along for the ride,Henry says:

Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self.

Now, Henry V is not on the path that would lead to a great love affair. He is also not on the way to becoming a tragic hero. And yet, wouldn't the therapy culture say that he had repressed his true self?

Perhaps this therapeutic notion that we can become competent, functioning adults without sacrificing something of our past childishness is simply a modern form of hubris. Being an adult means recognizing that we cannot be all things to all people at all times. it also means that we have to accept that the way we behaved at 6 should not hang around until we are 60.

Surely, there are times when it is good to display some vulnerability and silliness. But to make yourself into a human fiction where these are an integral part of your adult self... that is a formula for an unhappy ending.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Sweat the Small Stuff

In The Courtier, Castiglione made the following puzzling remarks: "For men demonstrate their courage far more often in little things than in great. Very often in the face of appalling danger but where there are numerous witnesses one will find those who, though ready to drop dead with fear, driven on by shame or the presence of others, will press forward, with their eyes closed, and do their duty, only God knows how. But in things of trifling importance, when they believe they can avoid danger without being noticed, they are only to willing to play for safety."

True character, he was saying, exists in the small stuff, in how you behave when no one is watching. It is not about how you perform in the spotlight.

If you only do well in the spotlight that means that you are good at putting on a show, but are not someone others should rely on. If you have one set of manners in public and another in private, which is the real you? And how do you decide?

Expand the definition to include any behavior that is trivial or unimportant. When a man is out on a date, what matters more: how much he is spending or whether he has dirt under his fingernails. At the least, poor grooming will warn off most women.

And if you are having a lunch interview for a job, what matters more: your command of budgeting or the way you talk to the waiter. I hope you have learned that the person who is disrespectful to the waiter or the busboy will be less likely to get the job.

How do you develop good character traits. By practicing them all the time, even, or especially, when it does not matter or when no one is looking. Don't think you are a good person because you can turn it on when you absolutely need to.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Don't Sell Yourself. Buy them.

If you are going on a job interview, the rule to follow is: Don't sell yourself. Buy them.

If you focus on telling them how wonderful you are and what great things you can do for them, this implies a criticism of their work... as though they are seriously in need of your services.

If they ask about prior performance, resist the temptation to tell them how great you were. Try to find a way to show them what you have contributed. Bring in a notebook filled with evidence. Always let your work speak for you.

You should focus on how much you admire their organization and how much you would be honored to work with them. If they have been having problems, try a no-fault approach... shift the blame to the business climate, high taxes and regulations. If they ask how you might improve things, have a couple of proposals at the ready.

Buying them begins with extensive research into their business, the market conditions they are facing, their policies, and their programs. Do not, however, act like you know it all already.

When the time comes for you to ask questions, use the occasion to demonstrate your respect for them, for the challenges they face, and the creative ways they have dealt with them.

Certainly, do not imagine that the job is beneath you and that you are doing them a large favor by working for them. That is the road to chronic unemployment.

Buying them also means respecting their culture, showing good manners, and practicing decorum. You know already that you do this by proper dress, good grooming, and punctuality. If they keep you waiting, say nothing about it. If you react as though you have been disrespected, the interview will be over before it has begun.

Getting a job has little to do with how badly you want the job. It is not about wishing, hoping, and praying for it. If you say that you really want the job, you will look desperate.

The best way to show that you really want the job is to come in prepared for it. That means you have put in the time and the effort to demonstrate your control of the information that will be in play in the interview. Hard work will take you much further than wishing.

If you have not fully prepared for the interview you will sound rehearsed, as though you are running through your talking points. No one likes being talked at.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Was Deconstruction a Con?

Last month Prof. Stanley Fish used his New York times blog to attempt to resurrect deconstruction. Several of his respondents mentioned that one reason deconstruction had fallen out of favor was that its founders were Nazis. One man wrote: "What does it say about Deconstruction that its most famous proponent was a hardcore Nazi sympathizer?"

In a second article Fish took up the question, but not without misstating it. His version was: "What does it say about deconstruction that one of its celebrated proponents was arguably a Nazi sympathizer?" To this he responded: "Nothing!"

See the difference. Fish has transformed a hardcore Nazi sympathizer to someone who was arguably a Nazi sympathizer? Is this kind of rewrite the basis of deconstruction?

The person referred to is Paul de Man, a professor at Cornell and Yale, who had written Nazi propaganda under the guise of literary criticism during World War II in occupied Belgium. For a full exposition of his story I recommend David Lehman's "Signs of the Times."

When I first read this question I thought the author was referring to Martin Heidegger. After all, Heidegger was the progenitor of deconstruction. The word itself is a translation from his concept of "destruktion." Does this mean that deconstruction is destruction with a con?

Is Stanley Fish trying to deconstruct us or to con us? Or is he right to say that since deconstruction involves the destruction of meaning and reference, that it cannot have political implications?

After all, you cannot make policy if language is a field of shifting meanings.

As it happens,Heidegger was an active and enthusiastic supporter of Adolph Hitler. He wrote that the Third Reich was the best embodiment of his philosophy and refused to recant his adherence to Nazism after the war. He could not, he said, repudiate his entire philosophy.

If the meaning of deconstruction is the Third Reich, that is not the same as saying that it doesn't mean anything. And even if it is not about politics, then perhaps it is about culture.

Deconstruction is a method of critical reading. It teaches people to scour literary and philosophical texts for alien elements that embody what has come to be called phallogocentrism...i.e. the privilege given to speech and meaning over the fluid activity of writing. Deconstruction proposed to rewrite classical texts in a way that removed and subverted anything smelling of fixed meanings and references.

Is this clear? Try it in a different context. In practice, substitute the word "Jewish" for phallogocentric, and deconstruction becomes a euphemism for pogrom!

It is not surprising that Heidegger was a great fan of Ernst Rohm's Storm Troopers. Weren't they cultural revolutionaries striking blows against certain alien cultural elements.

Better yet, take the fact that Heidegger believed that the source of alien Western thought was Socrates and that if we wanted to restore the purity of thought we had to go back to presocratic philosophers like Heraclitus.

This sounds innocent enough. That's what I thought until I happened on a pamphlet written by Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi propaganda minister, a man who was tried at Nuremberg and executed. In it Rosenberg explained that Socratic thought was the means through which the corrupting influence of Judaism had entered the Western world.

Does it ring a bell?

Deconstruction may not mean much, but that does not prevent it from being a con. Who but a con man is better at not saying what he means of meaning what he says?

If you want to ask who is right, Heidegger or Fish, the answer must be that Stanley fish is a dupe.