Archives For June 2009

Practical Knowledge

June 28, 2009 — 13 Comments

The Greeks believed in the telos, the idea that all things had a purpose. The way that this purpose was achieved, the way each objective was served, was with techne. Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato would sit and study something – like a chair – to discover its telos and the techne through which it is accomplished. This process, this intuitive understanding of what something is and why, was known as phronesis. It is the method of real analysis and the mark of wisdom.

This is what we miss from blogs. We have plenty of discussion and speculation, but rarely any understanding of the issues at their most basic level. This happens because too often writers look only at the numbers and theory and never the underlying human transaction. I’m guilty of this too, this internet autism. I remember the time I spent days looking online for a college professor’s info before I thought to try a phone book.

The debate about magazines and newspapers is a good example. Whether newspapers have a grim or bright future is irrelevant, but take note of how brazenly bloggers throw around the idea of going printless. They’ve examined a small part of the equation – that printing is an expensive economic model while digital is cheap – and assume it’s all they need to know. What they’ve lost is that maybe the true telos of printed news isn’t delivery but disposability. Ironically, the experts who coined the “attention economy” lack the human empathy to conceive what it’s like to walk through an airport and pick up something to read, or to pay $80 a year to get the Wall St Journal delivered, even if you only read it maybe two days a month. Not once did they think of a doctor’s office or a waiting room, the places where print media best fulfills its purpose.

Watch Jarvis throw around things like the death of real estate agents or the death of lawyers. He misses the currency that these professions trade on: unfamiliarity, convenience, deference, negotiation. That if you were a busy person looking for a new house, you wouldn’t pay someone to put together a list of those that fit your criteria, drive you to each one and handle the paperwork? And why shouldn’t they get paid proportionally to the size of the sale? Zillow, as great as it is, doesn’t change the most basic underlying condition: that staring at a city of houses and finding the right one by yourself is a daunting prospect. It makes it worse.

It’s funny because on the one hand, these types are incapable of seeing beyond their own reality. On the other, they don’t intuitively understand that reality either. They never sat down like Aristotle and examined the aims and objectives. They used the “what” to distract themselves from the “why.” Like Plato wrote, they grope around in the dark, confusing cause and effect and ascribing both where they don’t belong.

Good analysis requires understanding. Understanding requires thinking beyond the superficial notions of what we think things are and looking at the assumptions and facts that undergird them. To understand news, look at the human and economic conditions that contributed to their evolution. Before you throw out revolution predictions or herald new epochs, ask yourself: which of them have changed? And evolution is a good frame of reference because what often happens in biology is that mutations introduce radical changes which are then worn and shaped by their environment, leaving us with small, incremental progress.

The important thing isn’t that most blogs are worthless. They’re just a good example of how important the right kind of information is – that the type of knowledge that translates into real insight is the type that delves to the core of the issue. And that since the Greeks, we’ve been struggling with charlatans who lack the ability to get there. We would all be better served to break things down, to discern a telos, isolate the techne, and build towards phronesis.

Richard Feynman’s father taught his son one other important exercise. He would sit him down and they would go through the newspaper together. When they would come across a photo of pope blessing a group of people and he’d say “tell me the difference between these men.” Before Richard would reply he’d say, the difference is the hat, he’s wearing a hat. If the photo was of a general then it was the stars on his collar and if it was executive it was his suit. After years in the uniform business, Feynman’s father knew that in it or out of it the man wearing it is the same. They get stuck in traffic, make mistakes and take shits just like everybody else.

Feynman’s father probably had no idea that this was a deeply Stoic exercise. That although it’s where they got their reputation for pessimism, it’s the same freeing kind of objectivity. Epictetus told his students, when they’d quote some great philosopher, to picture themselves standing over the man having sex. Grunting, groaning and awkward; like the rest of us so completely detached from their ‘philosophical’ rhetoric. Marcus would deprive things of their euphemisms – roasted meat is a dead animal and vintage wine is old, fermented grapes. The aim was to see these things as they really are, to ‘strip away the legend that encrusts them.’

We forget, I think, how often our perception puffs things up and embellishes them. We underestimate how this hurts us spiritually as well as strategically. It makes us weak and uncritical. It doesn’t make us happy, in fact, it burdens us to take these things too seriously. Feynman and the Stoics exaggerated their objectivity not to undermine but as a means to fight bad habits.

The exercise breaks apart the fantasy that names and uniforms mean anything. It proves the alchemy false. For instance: think of the companies that intimidate us or whose golden halo follows former employees for the rest of their lives. Look for their weakness and see how it defines them. How helpless it renders them. Google running 41 tests to figure out what color blue to use. Microsoft buying friends like a lame rich kid. Think of artists and politicians: An author and their divorces. George Bush, from the world’s most powerful man to a sad, quiet desperation.

All that’s left then, believe it or not, is a few cheerful prospects. One, that you’re essentially no different than anyone else. The pope, a billionaire, a pariah – the same. Two, the chance to appreciate things as they actually are. The plain, inadvertent majesty of them. Finally, a complete rejection of the tendency for words and recognition to define reality. There is nothing anyone can say about you or what you do that changes whether it’s right, whether it makes you happy, whether it’s healthy.

Enough for Me

June 16, 2009 — 16 Comments

A little over two and a half years ago, Tucker and I ate at a turkish restaurant on the Lower East Side. He pointed to an American Apparel across the street, a company I had never heard of, and said you know, the owner pays Robert Greene a ton of money every month to answer his phone whenever he needs him. I thought, goddamn, that would be the life.

I spent most of the month of May living in an apartment above that store, working for Dov, answering to what amounts to a less lucrative, more hands on version of that job description. I was in the courtroom when the lawsuit over the billboard got settled and I thought, holy shit, Woody Allen.

Later, Tucker and I walked to the Barnes and Noble where he bought me the 33 Strategies of War. I read it on the plane back to Sacramento. He said, if I was going to work for him, I better know what was in it. And when Dov called me and told me we were flying back for the trial, I had just a few hours notice before my flight. I went to sleep and grabbed the abridged version of the War book on my way out the door.

Day before yesterday, I went to my girlfriend’s undergrad graduation ceremony. The one I would have been walking in, theoretically, had I not dropped out. I was impartial observer. Like I had no connection to these people, had never been one of them. Aaron had been right when he told me I could never go back, I would have been chasing a ghost.

In some ways, that’s about as close to the narrative arc as you can get. The dream it and you can do it. But I’m trying not to shy away from that for a reason. The Epicureans believed in storing up little pleasures and tucking them away until you needed them. Things that no one could ever take away, not even the worst of fate could prevent you from recalling and remembering. Though Viktor Frankl rooted his philosophy in Stoicism, in fact, it was this idea that he turned to over and over again at Auschwitz.

On my twenty second birthday I’m trying to keep in mind that there isn’t one thing that could happen, good or bad or luck or curse, that would change what I felt when I realized I was sitting in the same fucking chair as before. That more or less it was gravy from here. It was already what I’d asked for and thought too much to actually expect. And in that sense its not so much a fallacy as it is a kind of freedom.