“Aztec zodiac man,” a facsimile of the original painting or codex, 1831.
- For the cultural critic, astrology is low-hanging fruit: a gimmicky, pervasive pseudoscience that preys on our superstitions, our solipsism, our need to make sense of the unknown. It’s easy to ask people, How can you buy into that shit? But the editors of n+1 point out that “a better question might be why people like it, or whether it’s a problem to subscribe to something in which you don’t believe.” They point to astrology’s redemptive features: “We trust it because it corresponds to nothing; it doesn’t pretend to be true, or demand our belief. Unlike the pernicious pseudosciences of the past, or the scientism and pop neurology of the present, astrology poses little threat of getting serious … As a supplement to other points of view—what’s visible on first impression, say, or what you know of someone from experience—it adds another dimension, pulling some features into the foreground and pushing others to the back, reminding you of a person’s complexity … To consider that the shy person is sometimes wild, the considerate person sometimes duplicitous, is to practice something rather like empathy.”
- At business schools, meanwhile, they’re teaching something much more treacherous than astrology: literature. At Columbia, aspiring executives can take a three-hour weekly course called Leadership Through Fiction, taught by Bruce Craven: “A four-minute promotional video posted online alongside Craven’s syllabus outlines the rationale for repurposing literature as management shibboleth … These novels, he explains, are ‘narratives about characters in many different professions’ who must find a ‘balance between their professional obligations, their personal expectations, and goals.’ Like real people, fictional characters stumble, and it is ‘through their stumbling,’ Craven promises, ‘that we will learn how to prepare ourselves for the future.’ ”
- In her Nobel Lecture, Svetlana Alexievich—who will not, one suspects, be auditing Craven’s class—puts forth a more nuanced purpose for literature: “Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think—how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don’t appreciate it, we aren’t surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk … I love the lone human voice … It always troubled me that the truth doesn’t fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There’s a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. Dostoevsky thought that humanity knows much, much more about itself than it has recorded in literature. So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history.”
- If you really want to steep yourself in “the everyday life of feelings,” look at 108 years of high school yearbook photos reduced to a minute-long video. Researchers at UC Berkeley compiled the images to study the changing face of the American teen: “The regular nature of yearbook photos—schools have been asking students to face forward and be recorded for posterity since the early twentieth century—made them a good candidate for this kind of machine-driven visual analysis, which can catch small variations in repetitive images … The final data set is made up of 37,921 forward-facing portraits. The population represented in the dataset is from 115 high schools, in twenty-six states … The researchers created a delightfully named ‘lip curvature metric’ to measure smile intensity, finding that while everyone smiled more as time went on, girls always smiled more than boys.”
- As our nation’s smile intensity has changed, so has the valence of its slang. Take the word badass: in the mid-1950s, as Hermione Hoby explains, it was “used for the kind of men whose posturing invited mockery. To call someone a badass was to seek to puncture puffed-up masculine pride.” Today, though, it’s become perhaps the single most nauseating faux compliment: “the phrase ‘badass women’ peaked in 2015. This, in other words, was the year in which badass underwent such a regendering that it became understood as the foremost battlecry of feel-good feminism … If female badassery, as we understand and value it, comes down to maleness in the most basic and anatomical sense, if virtual dicks are now the yardstick for female power, then we have a problem. Because beneath the feel-good female bravura of badass is a decidedly feel-bad notion, namely that the only way a woman can exercise power is to submit herself to the drag (in both senses) of ‘behaving like a man.’ ”