Sunday, January 27, 2013

Call in the Dogs

Five facts:

1. Americans love dogs
2. It is possible to train dogs to do remarkable things
3. Americans are growing accustomed to always carrying around a "personal assistant" in the form of digital devices
4. For as much as we love electronic digital devices, there is a sentiment that our embrace of artifical devices is sapping us of our ability to interact with and appreciate the natural world
5. In the Middle Ages, rich people used dogs as napkins.

Everybody knows that at one time it was impossible for humans to live without animals.  Virtually everyone owned animals and forced them to do specific labors.  But then we invented artificial devices that were more efficient than four-legged friends, which allowed most people to live without directly enforcing animal labor.  And this was seen as a sign of progress.  Civilized people didn't bring animals in public.  It was okay to own animals, but for most, they were relegated (or promoted, depending on how you look at it) to household totems, objects to be lavished with (often undeserved) affection for the sake of lavishing a biological entity affection in order to promote emotional fulfillment. 

So because practical use of animals came to be unconsciuosly associated with barbarism at the same time that animals were utilized to fill an emerging set of psychological needs, the demand for animals as labor receded dramtically.  And subsequently, we have all been born into a world where household animals are referred to as "pets."  Because this is the way it has always been, we lose sight of how bizarre this is.  Furry, four-legged creatures are referred to with words that connotate a tacticle verb.  Perhaps we take a subconscious pride in our ability to tame and domesticate the wild.

But really, do we still need to have such pride?  What more do we have to prove?  We've got smart phones and tablets.

And precisely because we've got smart phones and tablets, I think there is a remote possibility that in the generations to come, animals will cease to be known as "pets".  We know that service animals have provided an invaluable contribution to those who are disabled.  But is it only disabled people who are in need of a service animal?

What would it take if every man, woman, and child in the nation were given their own service dog?  How much would crime be decreased if every person had a placid but well-trained guard dog?  What if said dogs were trained to peacefully execute simple but time-consuming everyday tasks that would ultimately increase every person's comfort and efficiency?  And that doesn't even begin to measure the psychic benefits of restoring a deeply ingrained ancient relationship between human and animal.

Obviously, such a workforce of trained animals would require a gargantuan investment in infastructure, and in human capital in order to train up such a canine workforce.  But then again, just such an investment is probably a perfect bipartisan economic stimulus for these times.  Everybody knows that we are moving to a service economy.  Machines have taken over for not just animal labor, but increasingly, for human labor.  But machines still don't know how to train dogs. 

I see no downside to my proposal.  It's time to let the dogs out.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Commemoration of a Hidden Passage

Our society, and probably most societies that have ever existed, have assiduously marked "rites of passages."  Ceremonies follow accomplishments, certifications are issued, "milestone" birthdays are observed with much fanfare.  At the same time, we privilege youth and resist the commemoration of milestones that legitimately mark a passage of time.

For example, over the last several years, I've looked at opening day rosters of my favorite professional sports teams with keen interest, examining how many players are younger than me and how many are older.  The number of those older is dwindling dramatically, and it will not be too long before I am older than all of the players on my favorite teams.  And I will find such a moment significant, since for the first decade-plus of my fandom every single player was older than me.  I wasn't paying attention when it first happened that I was rooting for someone younger than me (in hindsight I would kind of like to know when that was; I suppose I could research it.  I'll put it on my bucket list to do that).

Because there is some continuity from childhood to adulthood, everyone can relate to some extent to this kind of phenomenon.  We used to observe others who were older than us, then we began to observe our contemporaries, and at some point we observe only those who are younger than us.  And this is particularly strange when all the while we have been observing the same essential activity.  But because the implications of the phenomenon can be terrifying (ultimately confronting us with our mortality), we steadfastly refuse to commemorate the transitions in any way.  Moments of realization are stifled.  We simply proceed in the new reality as if it has always been the case.

The impetus for me to make these observations this week was this article by a guy named Steven Hyden.  I first became of Hyden awhile back when he wrote a series of essays on 90s rock for the Onion AV Club.    This was far from the first I've read about 90s rock.  But the difference is that prior articles were written by people who had a frame of reference that predated mine.  Hyden is only a few months older than me, and he is a fellow Wisconsinite.  Reading his work has resulted in a jarring shock of recognition.  After a lifetime of consuming rock criticism, for the first time, I'm reading rock criticism written by a legitimate contemporary of mine.  And only since this has transpired have I become aware of the prior status quo even being a status quo.

I've come to recognize that from the time anyone starts to read and for a period of approximately two decades, everything that is read is from the perspective of a prior generation.  Everything is from the perspective of a prior generation's lived experience.  That is certainly not to say that some experiences don't transcend time and speak directly to realities that level chronological perspectives.  But it is worth noting that the reader is always forced to assimilate their experience to the specific generational experience of another.  Even if one is reading a new publication, it is informed by the author's having lived through a period of time that the reader did not experience.  This is the normative experience of reading.  Because the reader knows no other way of reading, the unconscious assumption is that this will always be the normative experience.  And then after a period of years, members of the reader's own generation attain enough cultural capital to contribute published works.  And the result, again, is jarring.  Or at least it was in my experience.  Of course, reading is a bit different than watching sports in that it is more asynchronous.  My contemporaries have arrived, but I can always go back and read my elders.

Yet if I live long enough, I will encounter something even more jarring them reading my contemporaries.  I will be reading the work of one whose life experiences begin after my life experiences.  This hasn't happened to me yet (at least to a noticeable degree), but I've already got an ingrained prejudice against the concept.  I don't even want to hear what these hypothetical whippersnappers have to say (but they probably won't use the term "whippersnapper" unironically).

But perhaps my prejudice will never actually manifest itself as resistance.  Perhaps I will assimilate to the new reality as unconsciously as I was interpolated into the prior realities.  After all, there will be no ceremony to mark the passage of time.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

What Makes You So Special?

After several years of posting exactly once per week, I decided I was entitled to a two-week holiday break.  But now it's back to the weekly grind...

My last post dealt with the normalization of celebrity in our culture.  My assertion is that to become a celebrity is necessarily bizarre, akin to winning the lottery or getting a rare disease.  The odds are incredibly stacked against any one person achieving notoriety, so when it does happen, how does the individual reconcile this?  To my mind, there are four possibilities (though not necessarily distinct categories):

1. They don't think about it.  This is probably the most common reaction.  There is a reason the phrase "It is what it is" has become a part of our culture.  Once a path of reality has been blazed, we are reluctant to go back and consider if it hadn't been blazed (and overall, there is something to be said for not getting entangled by past hypotheticals when there is a present reality to consider).  But even though the celebrity may not consciously cogitate their celebrity status, there is always going to be an unconscious set of assumptions that affects their lives, which brings us to...

2. They assume, consciously or not, that they have attained celebrity by chance.  And in many cases I think this is largely true--without denying the talent of any given "star," there are many who have equal or superior talent who do not become "stars", and there is no way the "star" doesn't know this.  And to some extent, I think this can explain the behavior and the public meltdowns of a certain class of celebrity (Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, etc) can be explained by this assumption.  If you've attained something largely by chance, it can be taken away just as easily through the fickleness of chance.  This must be a heavy burden to bear, which would naturally manifest itself in dysfunction.

3. They assume that they are reaping the just deserts of their effort.  These would be the most stable celebrities.  A person such as Bill Gates comes to mind.  He spent the formative years of his life in anonymity, but he was spending those same years locked away for 10,000 hours writing code.  When he ascended to prominence as a cultural icon, he must have found it strange, but not wholly out of line with the narrative arc of his life.  Most sports stars would also fit into this category.  They've practiced for big-time stardom by being high school celebrities.

4. They believe that they are inherently different from the masses, perhaps since birth.  Few would articulate such a thing directly, since our American society in general is anti-elitist, and certainly has a built-in prejudice to the concept of a birthright.  Most of our society's formative narratives are built on the concept of individual achievement only through hard work (and in a weird way, we may award specific individuals "celebrityhood" so that we might validate this core value).  But one celebrity who has never been afraid to assert a narrative that goes against the cultural grain is Bob Dylan.  In an interview he gave to Rolling Stone magazine a few months back, he declared a kind of mystical philosophy that involved his being a type of predestined "chosen one":
I went to a library in Rome and I found a book about transfiguration, because it's nothing you really hear about every day, and it's in that mystical realm, and I found out only enough to know that, uh, OK, I'm not an authority on it, but it kind of sets you straight on what sets you apart. I'd always been different than other people, but this book told me why. Like certain people are set apart. You know, it's just like the phrase, "peers" – I mean, I see this, "Well, your peers this, your peers that." And I've always wondered, who are my peers? When I received the Medal of Freedom I started thinking more about it. Like, who are they? But then it became clear. My peers are Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, B.B. King, John Glenn, Madeleine Albright, Pat Summitt, Toni Morrison, Jasper Johns, Martha Graham, Sidney Poitier. People like that, and they are set apart, too. And I'm proud to be counted among them.
This idea has potentially unsettling implications, and it is definitely a weird one, but I would argue that it is an appropriate one given the weirdness of celebrity to begin with.  If it makes anyone uncomfortable, perhaps the solution would be not to dismiss Bob Dylan, but to find a way to dismiss a culture that would seek to hear what a celebrity named Bob Dylan has to say.