The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Robot Cars Are Totally Soulless, and Other News

May 18, 2016 | by

“The Man Catcher,” an early effort at pedestrian safety.

  • Books can be difficult—so many words, and usually they’re the same color. But what if we made them different colors? The Folio Society’s new edition of The Sound and the Fury presents the text “in fourteen different colors that represent different time zones in the narrative,” and this one guy is super excited about it: “Colored text … feels like a breakthrough for publishing. It’s a playful approach perfectly attuned to our era. Learning in general has already moved away from dusty tomes of monochrome text to brighter, shinier and more interactive methods. In a time of short attention spans and digital distractions, could multicolored publishing work for other difficult books? Would Gravity’s Rainbow be more popular with a rainbow-colored makeover? Would Proust’s interminable sentences be easier to navigate if they switched back and forth from one color to another, allowing the reader a sense of a light at the end of each tunnel?” (Because that’s why we read Proust: for the occasional sense of relief.)
  • If you’ve kept yourself up at night pondering the ethical dilemmas of driverless cars—like, if they’re going really fast and there’s a kid in the road, and they can either plow over the kid or jerk the wheel and kill you, the passenger—you might have even bigger problems to worry about. Daniel Albert writes: “I’m optimistic about our robot-car future. It will be really cool. But make no mistake that the development of driverless cars will flow from the same combination of forces that have carried us from the Model T to the Tesla. For some 120 years those forces have favored not mobility precisely, but automobility: a system that melds moving from place to place with industrial production and consumerism. Promoters of autonomous vehicles promise that they will defeat those forces, will wipe the slate clean. History suggests that they might also be consumed by them … Robot cars will be neither moral nor immoral in the narrow sense premised in the thought experiments now being conducted and sold as valuable. They will not exist outside of the current automotive ecosystem. They will instead enter an automotive landscape that instantiates myriad ethical choices made in the past and rehearsed daily.”

Overdrafts of Pleasure

May 5, 2016 | by

John Cleland wrote his (very) erotic novel, Fanny Hill, in prison. What did he mean by it?

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Merle Haggard and the long tradition of the outlaw poet, here.

John Cleland’s sentences often resemble the sexual encounters he imagined in his best-known book—a two-volume novel called Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill, published when he was in debtor’s prison between 1748 and 1749, reissued in a censored edition the following year, and presented in both cases as an autobiographical letter by a former courtesan named Fanny Hill. A typical Cleland sentence goes on past any moderate end point, “wedging [itself] up to the utmost extremity.” It makes unexpected, spasmodic, sometimes baffling detours, “exalted by the charm of their novelty and surprise.” It drifts so far into the ridiculous that sometimes it seems “that on earth”—as Cleland’s heroine comments in one passage about the “women of quality” she and her colleagues once wanted to resemble—“there cannot subsist anything more silly, more flat, more insipid and worthless.” But then it keeps going, escalating until it seems to have been “driven forcibly out of the power of using any art.” Read More »

The Delinquents

March 10, 2016 | by

The language of debt and ethics.

Illustration: Thomas Hosmer Shepherd

When E. E. Cummings wrote “i am never without it (anywhere / i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done / by only me is your doing, my darling),” he was talking about a lover, but he may as well have been talking about a debt. For we are wracked with debt, especially with student debt, which last month the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported to be the second largest household debt category after mortgages. It’s also the debt category with the highest delinquency rate—perhaps because its balances are unpayable, given the way the global economy is stacked against the young. But still creditors wonder: How can they make their debtors pay up? The key may be in asking with the right words, and for the right reasons. Read More »

Hey Orphan, You’re Just a Plot Device, and Other News

October 9, 2015 | by

Oliver Twist, as pictured on the cover of Classic Comics no. 23.

  • Michael Lewis’s profile of (and fan note to) Tom Wolfe also reveals the startling comprehensiveness of the latter’s archives: “Wolfe saved what he touched—report cards, tailors’ bills, to-do lists, reader letters, lecture notes, book blurbs, requests for book blurbs, drawings, ideas for drawings never executed (‘Nude Skydiver Devoured in Midair by Ravenous Owls’), and dozens of sexually explicit and totally insane letters from a female stalker, including one consisting chiefly of seventeen pages of red lip prints. He just tossed all this stuff in steamer trunks and hauled the trunks up to the attic, where some of them had sat undisturbed for fifty years. He kept postcards from friends with hardly anything written on them; he kept all the Christmas cards; he kept morning-after notes from New York society ladies … The documents tell the story of the leading journalistic observer and describer of American life, in a time of radical cultural transformation, and of the sensational explosion in American literary journalism that occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s—on which the ashes and the dust are just now settling.”
  • The orphan in literature is many things—spunky, resourceful, downtrodden, tragic, trammeled, unfettered—but foremost it’s a shortcut to narrative tension: “Orphanhood is the beginning of (mis)adventures and only very rarely the end. Once such intolerable extremity has been inflicted (by parents, by cruel society, by authors), it can’t be left be: the sufferers must seek relief and resolution … The literary orphan belongs to no world except that of narrative opportunity … Many people expect real orphans to behave like literary orphans: like portable anti-alienation devices for the people who, so to speak, take us in.”
  • If you sat for a portrait from Goya, you weren’t there for vanity’s sake; you had to be prepared to see the worst in yourself, because that’s what he was going to put on the canvas. “Even while he was following the protocols of aristocratic portraiture, Goya just couldn’t stop himself noticing—and depicting—all sorts of extraneous and revealing sights … There are such subversive undertones and notes of sardonic comedy to many of his pictures … Goya’s (Lucian) Freud-like honesty about his sitters seems so clear in retrospect that it has always been a mystery why some of them put up with it. He clearly despised his last royal master Ferdinand VII, who looks sly, nasty, fat-faced and idiotic in the state portrait of 1814–15.”
  • Driving refugees on Lesbos: “At one of the main landing beaches, children, babies, elderly, sick and disabled people were waiting for Norwegian volunteers to pick them up and drive them three wiles west to another makeshift waiting point at Efthalou. It used to be illegal to transport refugees on the island and the police arrested a few people, but the law has since been relaxed. A Danish woman asked me to drive a family of four. They were from the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp just outside Damascus, which is now mostly controlled by Islamic State. Rami, the father, spoke excellent English … ‘Somebody, somebody will help us,’ he said. His wife was pregnant and had had bleeding problems in the boat. ‘Oh my god, very beautiful,’ Rami said as we drove round a bend on the dirt track overlooking the sea.”
  • You look like someone who’s seeking ethical clarity. Well, don’t look for it here. We don’t have any. We’re fresh out. “The old question—How to live an alright life in a bad world? … Nonprofit job, artish hobbies, moderate drinking, hope the friends stay funny and nearby. While young: shared apartments, cheap whiskey, n+1; older: art in the house, Spanish wine, the New Yorker. And when God or the workers’ council weighs our fates, hope the scales might be tipped by the weight of a book … An idea is a kind of cartoon. Inhabiting one, we get that thrill of clarity: everything simple and certain, with sharp black borders. But at some point this cleaner world turns oppressive, like the grandparents’ condo after a few days’ visit, and we look to escape. That too is another sort of thrill. We get out, and the fuller world rushes back to meet us, in all its grubby confusion.”

Back to School with the Übermensch

September 16, 2015 | by

Nietzsche on education, inequality, and translation.

Nietzsche as a pupil at Schulpforta, 1861.

 When I went off to college, it wasn’t, as far as I could tell, the result of any decision. The assumption—the fact—was simply there, in my family or high school or race and class or wherever it was, that there was more to come after twelfth grade. I didn’t appreciate the privilege nearly enough, but I also felt no need to justify to myself or anyone else how I planned to spend the next four years. There must still be such eighteen or nineteen year olds out there, never expected to explain themselves, but it is harder to imagine them. Nowadays, education is fraught and embattled and debated and doubted down to the core.

I feel like I’ve read the same essay half a dozen times recently­—here are two good examples—an essay insisting that the true value of education is not calculable in monetary terms. Education is moral, philosophical: a process of creating and becoming better people. You can make the argument that a liberal-arts education is “valuable” in the narrow sense, since it is, but even if that argument wins some battles—and it rarely does—it will lose the war. Once you concede that economic striving takes priority over artistic or humanistic goals, then arts funding and English degrees and even pure science are never going to withstand the juggernaut of business and technology. You have to fight under a higher standard.

I agree with this line of thought and am happy enough to see the point made half a dozen times over. I’ve read it recently in Friedrich Nietzsche, too, whose little-known 1872 lectures On the Future of Our Educational Institutions are appearing this fall in my new translation under the snappier title Anti-Education. Even in Nietzsche’s day, the state and the masses were apparently clamoring for

as much knowledge and education as possible—leading to the greatest possible production and demand—leading to the greatest happiness: that’s the formula. Here we have Utility as the goal and purpose of education, or more precisely Gain: the highest possible income … Culture is tolerated only insofar as it serves the cause of earning money. 

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Have You Seen This Head? and Other News

July 16, 2015 | by

Murnau

F. W. Murnau shooting in 1920.

  • Have you seen F. W. Murnau’s skull? From the neck up, the Nosferatu director has gone missing from his grave, which sits about twelve miles out of Berlin. No reward has been set, and no word given on whether his lovely throat remains intact.
  • I do my best to ensure that this is a Go Set a Watchman­–free space. But who can resist the chance to quote a bunch of parents who named their sons after Atticus Finch, only to find that Watchman depicts him as a racist, segregationist clod? “When we first heard about the book, my wife said, ‘Oh no, I hope Atticus didn’t turn bad or something,’ ” one father told the New York Times. “Maybe our son will grow up and be the more famous and distinguished Atticus, and maybe he’ll get all the recognition.” The name was the 370th most common in the country last year, and Watchman’s first printing comprises two million copies. Young Atticus has his work cut out for him.
  • Ethics professors spend their entire careers immersed in rigorous analysis of what’s right and good. If you’ve never met one, you could be forgiven for ranking them just under clergymen in their unswerving dedication to the moral life. But ethicists are not, in fact, any more ethical than you or I. A researcher examined their approaches to “voting in public elections, calling one’s mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting and door-slamming during philosophy presentations, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, overall moral evaluation by one’s departmental peers based on personal impressions, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany.” The result will stop the presses: “For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort—logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.” (They do donate to charities more regularly and eat less meat, though.)
  • When the Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon published his first novel, he had a terrifying encounter with a reader of sorts: “He smiled and shook my hand and even said he was sorry to bother me at home. But he walked in without being asked, and immediately, as he sat down on one of the sofas, took out a big black gun and placed it loudly on the living room table … He said that Hitler was one of his heroes. He said that Hitler was one of the greatest of men. He said that he admired how Hitler always knew exactly how to dispose of his enemies. He said that we should all learn from Hitler. He then asked me if I understood and I managed to stutter that I did and he grabbed his gun from the table, got up, and walked silently out of my house.”
  • The trials and triumphs of editing Saul Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein: “As he homed in on something that was bothering him, you’d hear first a deep rasping, the audible intakes of breath growing sharper. Then he’d look up. ‘This isn’t working,’ he’d say. More breathing. Then, ‘Let’s try this.’ At this point, I would start writing, taking down his words. Word by word a new paragraph would emerge and take the place of the older one, stronger, sharper than what was there before. Even as I read it out to him, I’d see how he’d changed it for the better. Whatever had jarred in the earlier version had gone. Writer’s alchemy—changing what was pretty good to begin with into something even better.”