Monday, September 27, 2010

One Year of Blogging

Anniversaries somehow have a way of sneaking up on you—I was flipping through some of my older posts and realized that I've been blogging for just over a year now. Already! I can't say that I feel anything but proud. This is one of the first projects I've sustained for such a long-term, and I think it's done me a lot of good. Since these types of occasions are normally marked for reflection, I thought I'd take a moment to step back from my writing and see how I've been doing over the past 74 posts. (This one will make it 75!)

Looking back on old posts makes me feel like an archeologist of my own mind. I can see how each post crystallized my state of mind at the time, forming a sort of mental fossil record that makes it possible for me, now, to contemplate the evolution of my thinking from the outside. Like the archeologist, I feel at once a strong connection and objective distance to the past, which gives my study a tinge of both nostalgia and curiosity. The main difference, of course, is that one year doesn't make ancient history. As much as I try to approach my old posts with the objectivity of archeology, I know I'm still attached to my old writing.

One of the first things that strikes me when I read my early posts is how clearly anxious this project made me. Right after finishing my first post, I wrote a second one worrying about how I'd find my own voice. About a month later, I wrote another post entitled Washed up?, where I wondered aloud whether I wasn't creative enough to come up with new posts constantly. Although my first instinct was to dismiss these posts as comical and childish (which they are), I now believe it's more important to recognize how much writing involves putting yourself out there, and becoming comfortable with that. That I can look back on my earlier posts with a kind of grandfatherly humor is, to me, a sign of real progress.

I'm happy to find that, one year later, I have some answers to the questions I was asking in the beginning. As I mentioned, I used to wonder how I'd find my voice. Now I don't—not that I understand my own voice any better, but I've learned to stop worrying about my writing so much, and to keep my focus on expressing myself as clearly and consistently with my purpose as possible. I also used to wonder how I'd constantly come up with topics. It wasn't until this post in August that I realized that my inspiration for posts came more from my interactions with new ideas outside of me rather than from some place within me. That took a big psychological burden off of me.

I'm also happy to find how impressed I often become when I read my old posts. On the whole, they tend to be quite good, and surprisingly insightful. [Actually, what I mean is that they turned out better than I remember; when you're in the midst of a flurry of edits and re-edits, it's hard to see anything but errors. That's why exercises like these serve as a helpful way of getting out of that constant self-criticizing mode.]

For the next year, there are some aspects of my writing I'd like to improve. First, I want to modify the way I process my writing. Currently, I think more about style, the way the words sound on the page, rather than substance, what I actually want to communicate. Sometimes I compromise on my ideas for the sake of getting a pretty turn of phrase. I find that, too often, I use turns of phrases without actually thinking about what they mean. I think it's time to change these habits. Style is not an end in itself, but rather a tool to better communicate one's ideas. When I think about what to write, I want to think about style not as separate from substance, but as a part of it.

In addition to communicating accurately, I'd like to start communicating more artistically. Reading journal articles and political economy books all the times has made me forget that the occasional well-crafted metaphor, simile, or image makes reading much more enjoyable. I appreciate that kind of beauty when I see it in other's writing, so I'd like to incorporate it in mine too.

P.S. If I were to hold an Oscars of my writing then my nominations for the category of "Best Sentence(s)" would surely be:
  • "The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin has compiled a complete list of the words DFW circled in his copy of the American Heritage Dictionary. Wallace scholars are of course using this list to glean some more insight into his mind and work, but I just enjoy birdwatching all these rare and exotic words that somehow show up in the English language." from What David Foster Wallace Circled in His Dictionary
  • "The thing—the problem, you could say—with epiphanies is that no matter how small they are, they bring such a burst of clarity that it's easy to forget how private and personal the whole experience is. You walk outside after an epiphany and the blue sky suddenly feels more blue and humanity seems somehow more enlightened and less hopeless. It's hard not to think of the experience as anything other than a leap forward for mankind." from Maybe Not a Leap Forward for Mankind, but At Least a Quantum Leap for Me
  • "And of course, the film is absolutely joyful to see, visually: a real treat for the eyes." from Avatar

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

DFW Calls Out Bullshit

I was reading an interview of David Foster Wallace by Larry McCaffery, professor of English and Comp Lit at San Diego State University, when I stumbled upon this passage:
LM: . . . yeah, another commodity. I agree with Fredric Jameson and others who argue that modernism and postmodernism can be seen as expressing the cultural logic of late capitalism. Lots of features of contemporary art are directly influenced by this massive acceleration of capitalist expansion into all these new realms that were previously just not accessible. You sell people a memory, reify their nostalgia and use this as a hook to sell deodorant. Hasn’t this recent huge expansion of the technologies of reproduction, the integration of commodity reproduction and aesthetic reproduction, and the rise of media culture lessened the impact that aesthetic innovation can have on people’s sensibilities? What’s your response to this as an artist?

DFW: You’ve got a gift for lit-speak, Larry. Who wouldn’t love this jargon we dress common sense in: "formal innovation is no longer transformative, having been co-opted by the forces of stabilization and post-industrial inertia," blah, blah. But this co-optation might actually be a good thing if it helped keep younger writers from being able to treat mere formal ingenuity as an end in itself....[emphasis mine, obviously]
There were, perhaps, more polite ways of saying it, but still: who else has the balls to call out BS like that?!

You can find a link to the interview in its entirety here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Hypothesis on Poverty

I recently read a paper for class entitled "Destitution and the Poverty of its Politics—With Special Reference to South Asia" by Barbara Harriss-White. Harriss-White analyzes destitition, the state of the poorest of the poor, and finds that it encompasses three aspects: first, "having nothing"—that is, old-fashioned economic poverty, or lack of access and control over assets; second, "being nothing"—having no political rights, being marginalized and outcast; and lastly, "being wrong"—having the law work against you.

As an economist, I was used to thinking of extreme poverty in terms of the first aspect, material deprivation. But these latter two caught my eye. The paper made me realize that true destitution (far beyond ordinary relative poverty) is not just an economic process, but also a social and political one; that is, market processes alone aren't enough to drive people to destitution—it takes people actively excluding others for such a dire situation to exist. As Harriss-White puts it:
Destitution is a process in political economy. It is not simply that the technical requirements for labor processes require some kinds of bodies to be denied access [...] It is not simply that revenue for social sector spending is simultaneously squeezed, and thus eligibility for social protection by the state will need to be restricted (Russell and Malhotra, 2001). It is also that the exclusion of people from exploitation is culturally legitimated; society actively allows oppressive practice and, it is argued here, the state is often complicit in this process.
If she's right, if societies do truly actively allow and legitimate exclusion, then why do they do it? My hypothesis is that it is a culturally evolved way of dealing with overpopulation: societies that have exceeded their carrying capacity exclude groups of people to preserve scarce resources. If the carrying capacity can only support 70% of the population, the social norms evolve to exclude the other 30% from competition.

The people who engage in exclusion obviously do not think in those terms. They think of morality, or personal responsibility, or not having to deal with addicts, or the "unclean." But these tensions only manifest themselves and get worse when people are pressed. I suspect that as societies become wealthier, they become more willing to include formally marginalized peoples, simply because they can afford to; the pretexts formerly used to legitimize the exclusion lose support, lose importance, and slowly drop away.

[The biggest problem with the hypothesis is figuring out what "overpopulation" means. How do we distinguish between "overpopulated" societies and those that are merely very crowded? What standard of living does each person in the society "need"? By whose standards?]

Sunday, September 5, 2010

One of the Wisest Things I've Heard

"The hardest thing in the world to learn is when to stop." 

As in:
  • Enjoying food is nice, but not when we eat too much.
  • Enjoying someone's company is nice, but not when we cling on to them.
  • Enjoying power is nice, but not when we sacrifice all values to maintain it.
While enjoying something, to have the presence of mind to know that the enjoyment will end if we abuse it is a very difficult thing to learn indeed.