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Sublime and Funky Prose Passage of the Decade, &c.

December 9, 2009

Have you ever read a good article about the effect of technological fads on social life? I sure haven’t, but I have read this one. Actually, that’s a lie. William Deresiewicz’ bloated piece on “Faux Friendship” was too much to slog through. Suffice it to say, Deresiewicz blames Facebook for my failure to live up to the friendship standards of “Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Virgil’s Nisus and Euryalus: Far from being ordinary and universal, friendship, for the ancients, was rare, precious, and hard-won.” Yeah, some indictment.

I have read articles blaming iPods for closing us off from our fellow man. Ironically, I have read articles blaming cellphones for making us too connected to our fellow man. Meanwhile, the iPhone is blamed for turning people into insufferable fact-checkers. Civility has become a casualty of accuracy! Gone is the right to make easily-disproven factual assertions about our world! I won’t even get into that sub-genre of the crank essay concerning how “X technology infantalizes us.” Lost in all of these articles is the fact that gadgets are inanimate objects that we use as we desire.

File it all under “The more things change.” People used to worry that the motorcar would lead women to promiscuity and that the landline would turn women into gossipy busybodies. (Say, do you think these pieces are more telling about their authors than the technology in question?) Anyway, what technological horrors await us in the upcoming decade? Enter Slate, asking the questions less contrarian news outlets fear to ask: Will solar panels turn us all into self-satisfied jerks?

Moving on: is unemployment worse today than it was in the early 80s? Thanks to the statistical phenomenon know as Simpson’s Paradox, it’s hard to say. Overall, things today are better – but for any given educational group, things are worse. The Wall Street Journal explains. Statistics is extremely counterintuitive. Here is one of my favorite examples: for non-independent positive random variables X and Y, E(X/Y)E(Y/X)>1. Crazy! (Hint: it is a special case of Jensen’s Inequality)

Finally, the 2000s are winding down. Fortunately, Cornel West, in a passage highlighted by Scott McLemee, set these words down to paper just in time to enter the running for prose passage of the decade:

“The basic problem with my love relationships with women is that my standards are so high — and they apply equally to both of us. I seek full-blast mutual intensity, fully fledged mutual acceptance, full-blown mutual flourishing, and fully felt peace and joy with each other. This requires a level of physical attraction, personal adoration, and moral admiration that is hard to find. And it shares a depth of trust and openness for a genuine soul-sharing with a mutual respect for a calling to each other and to others. Does such a woman exist for me? Only God knows and I eagerly await this divine unfolding. Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!”

I can’t count the riffs I have seen on West’s unfortunately revealing passage these last few weeks. McLemee’s dissection of West’s latest isn’t to be missed. (Here McLemee responds to his critics.)

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