Friday, February 25, 2011

A Critique of Preparedness and Practicality

I decided to look at an essay rather than a poetry.  They take more work, but there are not all that many of them out there.
 Of Apes and Men: Lenin’s Enlightenment by Slavoj Sizek.
 It has  a tight weave, and I am unfamiliar with some of the strands that are used in this pattern.  For me,  it tends to fray a bit around the edges.  I got it from MR, and I noticed that I noticed I was not the only one confused.
It perked my interest because he began talking about survivalism (preparedness).  It winds up he is talking about a close cousin of the preparers version of survivalism:  survival in extremes.  However, the critique of the cousin seems to apply somewhat  to the main root - To the point that there are many  survivalist from the 1970s who are no longer with us today:  dying of old age, never able to use their preparations.   Is this a case of practical applications that are unlikely to be used:  and can something be a practical application if it likely never to be used.
His first point brings to mind the discussion of low probability events within Nassim Nicholas Taleb's  The Black Swan : the impact of the highly improbable (starting at p.92 of 1st ed hc), of the Dino Buzzati novel, Il deserto dei tartari: trans. The Tarter Steppe. So to be clear, what we have here is a discussion of a novel within an book-essay to refer back to the original essay we were discussing (LOL):
[In this novel] Giovanni Drogo is a man of promise.  He has just graduated from the military academy with the rank of junior officer, and active life is just starting.  But things do not turn out as planned: his initial four-year assignment is a remote outpost, the Bastiani fortress, protecting the nation from the Tartars likely to invade from the border desert-not too desirable a position.  The fortress is located a few days by horseback from the town there nothing but bareness around it-none of the social buzz that a man of his age could look forward to.  Drogo thinks that his assignment in the outpost is temporary, a way for him to pay his dues before more appealing potions present themselves. Later, back in town, in his impeccably ironed uniform and with his athletic figure, few ladies will be able to resist him.
What is Drogo to do in this hole? He discovers a loophole, a way to be transferred after only four months.  He decides to use the loophole.
At the very last minute, however, Drogo takes a glance at the desert from the window of the medical office and decides to extend his stay.  The appeal of the fort and waiting for the attackers, the big battle with the ferocious Tartars, gradually become his only reason to exist. The entire atmosphere of the fort is one of anticipation.  The other men spend their time looking at the horizon and awaiting the big event of the enemy attack.  They are so focused that, on rare occasions, they can detect the most insignificant stray animal that appears at the edge of the desert and mistake it for an enemy attack.
Sure enough, Drogo spends the rest of his life extending his stay, delaying the beginning of his life in the city-thirty-five years of pure hope, spent int eh grip of the idea that one day, from the remote hills that no human has ever crossed, the attackers will eventually emerge and help him rise to the occasion.
At the end of the novel we see Drogo dying in a roadside inn as the event for which he ahas waited all his life takes place.  He has missed it.
Taleb's further discussion on the novel are not entirely relevant to our subject here.  It is important to note that there it was not the original intention of spending ones life waiting for a non-event to occur.  But outside of the frame of what happens within one life span, a rare event not necessarily a non-event. 

There is the sweet trap of anticipation, and the life is one worth living.  It has purpose, simplicity, and you are not alone in your endeavours.  Drogo was waiting for a Black Swan, and one attribute of these Black Swans is that there is an asymmetry in consequences-- either positive or negative.  The consequences can be thirty-five years of waiting for a non-event, or they can be a very bright blaze of glory.

As we move back to Slavoj Sizek's essay,  I don’t know which is funnier, his final account of children learning wilderness survival tips by rote, or [Note 4] the comparison of the Western  practice of offering a practical solution for a problem which does not arise, versus Eastern one of offering a useless solution for a real common problem.  Even if some of his points, might be pointed at myself, it is good to have a sense of humor about such things.
We are coming in on the middle so the starting introductory sentence is clumsy.   Shove your way past it and you'll be just fine.
Is the mechanism of displacement at work in this dream ... elaborated by Fredric Jameson apropos of a science-fiction film which takes place in California in near future, after a mysterious virus has very quickly killed a great majority of the population? When the film’s heroes wander in the empty shopping malls, with all the merchandises intact at their disposal, is this libidinal gain of having access to the material goods without the alienating market machinery not the true point of the film occluded by the displacement of the official focus of the narrative on the catastrophe caused by the virus? At an even more elementary level, is not one of the commonplaces of the sci-fi theory that the true point of the novels or movies about a global catastrophe resides in the sudden reassertion of social solidarity and the spirit of collaboration among the survivors? It is as if, in our society, global catastrophe is the price one has to pay for gaining access to solidarity collaboration…
When my son was a small boy, his most cherished personal possession was a special large “survival knife” whose handle contained a compass, a sack of powder to disinfect water, a fishing hook and line, and other similar items – totally useless in our social reality, but perfectly fitting the survivalist fantasy of finding oneself alone in wild nature. It is this same fantasy which, perhaps, give the clue to the success of Joshua Piven’s and David Borgenicht’s surprise best-seller The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. [3] Suffice it to mention two supreme examples from it: What to do if an alligator has its jaws closed on your limb? (Answer: you should tap or punch it on the snout, because alligators automatically react to it by opening their mouths.) What to do if you confront a lion which threatens to attack you? (Answer: try to make yourself appear bigger than you are by opening your coat wide.) The joke of the book thus consists in the discord between its enunciated content and its position of enunciation: the situations it describes are effectively serious and the solutions correct – the only problem is WHY IS THE AUTHOR TELLING US ALL THIS? WHO NEEDS THIS ADVICE?
The underlying irony is that, in our individualistic competitive society, the most useless advice concerns survival in extreme physical situations – what one effectively needs is the very opposite, the Dale Carnegie type of books which tell us how to win over (manipulate) other people: the situations rendered in The Worst-Case Scenario lack any symbolic dimension, they reduce us to pure survival machines. In short, The Worst-Case Scenario became a best-seller for the very same reason Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, the story (and the movie) about the struggle for survival of a fishing vessel caught in the “storm of the century” east of the Canadian coast in 1991, became one: they both stage the fantasy of the pure encounter with a natural threat in which the socio-symbolic dimension is suspended. In a way, The Perfect Storm even provides the secret utopian background of The Worst-Case Scenario: it is only in such extreme situations that an authentic intersubjective community, held together by solidarity, can emerge. Let us not forget that The Perfect Storm is ultimately the book about the solidarity of a small working class collective! The humorous appeal of The Worst-Case Scenario can thus be read as bearing witness to our utter alienation from nature, exemplified by the shortage of contact with “real life” dangers.
We all know the standard pragmatic-utilitarian criticism of the abstract humanist education: who needs philosophy, Latin quotes, classic literature – one should rather learn how to act and produce in real life… well, in The Worst-Case Scenario, we get such real life lessons, with the result that they uncannily resemble the useless classic humanist education. Recall the proverbial scenes of the drilling of young pupils, boring them to death by making them mechanically repeat some formulas (like the declination of the Latin verbs) – the Worst-Case Scenario counterpoint to it would have been the scene of forcing the small children in the elementary school to learn by heart the answers to the predicaments this book describes by repeating them mechanically after the teacher: “When the alligator bites your leg, you punch him on the nose with your hand! When the lion confronts you, you open your coat wide!” [4]
[3] Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, New York: Chronicle Books 1999.
[4] On account of its utter “realism,” The Worst-Case Scenario is a Western book par excellence; its Oriental counterpart is chindogu, arguably the finest spiritual achievement of Japan in the last decades, the art of inventing objects which are sublime in the strictest Kantian sense of the term – practically useless on account of their very excessive usefulness (say, glasses with electrically-run mini-windshields on them, so that your view will remain clear even if you have to walk in the rain without an umbrella; butter contained in a lipstick tube, so that you can carry it with you and spread it on the bread without a knife). That is to say, in order to be recognized, the chindogu objects have to meet two basic criteria: it should be possible to really construct them and they should work; simultaneously, they should not be “practical,” i.e. it should not be feasible to market them. The comparison between The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook and chindogu offers us a unique insight into the difference between the Eastern and the Western sublime, an insight far superior to the New Age pseudo-philosophical treatises. In both cases, the effect of the Sublime resides in the way the uselessness of the product is the outcome of the extreme “realistic” and pragmatic approach itself. However, in the case of the West, we get simple, realistic advises for problems (situations) most of us will never encounter (who of us will really have to face alone a hungry lion?), while in the case of the East, we get unpractically complicated solutions for the problems all of us effectively encounter (who of us was not caught in the rain?). The Western sublime offers a practical solution for a problem which does not arise, while the Eastern sublime offers a useless solution for a real common problem. The underlying motto of the Eastern Sublime is “Why do it simply, when you can complicate it?” – is the principle of chindogu not discernible already in what appears to our Western eyes as the “impractical” clumsy form of the Japanese spoons? The underlying motto of the Western Sublime is, on the contrary, “If the problems do not fit our preferred way of solving them, let’s change problems, not the way we are used to solve them!” – is this principle not discernible in the sacred principle of Bureaucracy which has to invent problems in order to justify its existence which serves to solve them?


Waldow said...

4 good posts in a 24 hour period strikes me as a sort of Confederate Pistol charge. Especially appreciate the gas price calc. I can plug it into my budget spreadsheet.

This prepper critique is from a humanist viewpoint, and it is therefore not compelling to me. Humanists somehow join:

1)putting people on a pedestal
while simultaneously
2)promoting ennui.

This is a sort of faith, and a particularly arrogant one IMHO. Judge them by their fruits. All but a few humanists give me the creeps anymore.

I value faith that there is a sacred place in eternity for ANYTHING done truly well, with full commitment and focus, Knack, regardless of anthropomorphic attention or even material "success". It was the wine dark seas Homer praised most often.

Waldow said...

I find particularly disconcerting Sizek's repeated assertion that we in the west makeup deadly scenarios in order to compensate for our lack of real encounters with danger. I.e.:

The humorous appeal of The Worst-Case Scenario can thus be read as bearing witness to our utter alienation from nature, exemplified by the shortage of contact with “real life” dangers.

You know what I find funny? That a "qualified communist" academic like him can espouse the same basic myopia that most capitalist academics would. Re: alienation, methinks he doth protest too much. The common thread is a backhanded worship of alienation. Where technology is a religion, such sacrifices of real reality as his rhetoric are necessarily hidden in a cloud of smug.

He ought to get his ass out and do physical work some more and he might get killed. (It is good for a man, especially him. Ha!) I love a good joke, but enough people make fun of and look down on preppers already.

russell1200 said...

Short posts tend to almost write themselves. Two of them I had saved a draft/ideas. There is so much topical stuff going on that I could easily make it a news blog versus an ideas blog. It is harder to write one good (or at least involved) post than four short ones.

I think it is sort of funny that so many of our modern Marxists come from the soft handed ranks of academia. Of course they often have no real concept of how hard a lot of working people within the U.S. have to work. I mean sure they understand about somebody trying to feed a family on Wal-mart wages. But they have no clue about how many people are still involved in very physical work. However, I think preppers understand this better more because their demographics lean very heavily toward the working class, not because they are an universally empathetic bunch.

I don't really take Sizek seriously enough to be offended by him. I could be mistaken but I don't take him as a techno-materialist. Somewhere in there I am sure is a counter reaction to materialism as a means to solving problems: special all-one-gadgets to survive all situations. The fact that there is a term "mall ninja" does give him some ammunition to work with. In prepperology I have seen the same trend referred to as Yuppie Survivalists or Frat Boy Survivalists. I am still not completely sure what a Frat Boy survivalist is. I think the very true point he makes is that you should focus on the practical and real. Preppers can get into their little self-accepting doctrine and belief systems just as much as the next group.

It is true that enough people make fun of preppers already. But that is going to be true of any group that does not whole heartedly participate in the main stream culture. Hippies are not particularly popular. And truthfully, outside of their milieu, neither are communists. Simply by being a communist, more people hate Sizek for what he is than you or I: by a lot.