There’s a political disconnect in the United States. We have two political parties, each now living in its own reality and working with its own set of facts. The common ground between them? Next to none.
How to explain this disconnect? Maybe the answer lies in the theory of “cognitive closure”–a theory first worked out by social psychologist Arie Kruglanski back in 1989.
“People’s politics are driven by their psychological needs,” Kruglanski explains in the short documentary above. “People who are anxious because of the uncertainty that surrounds them are going to be attracted to messages that offer certainty.”
He sips a soda, then continues, “The need for closure is the need for certainty, to have clear cut knowledge. You feel that you need to stop processing too much information, to stop listening to a variety of viewpoints, and zero in on what appears to be, to you, the truth.” “The need for closure tricks your mind to believe you have the truth, even though you haven’t examined the evidence very carefully.” And that, unfortunately, can be very dangerous.
Kruglanski’s theory could help explain the rise of Nazism in the economically-depressed Weimar Germany. And it’s perhaps why, across much of our economically stagnating world, we’re seeing populations lurch toward extreme ideologies and autocratic personalities. “The divisions, the polarization, it’s all part of the same psychological syndrome,” says Kruglanski.
So what’s the cure? Listen to other points of view. Look at all available information. And, most of all, be suspicious of your own sense of righteous.
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They say a filmmaker qualifies as an auteur if you can identify their work from any given shot. That might strike even cinephiles as a difficult task unless the filmmaker in question is Wes Anderson, who for twenty years’ worth of feature films now has defined and refined a cinematic style increasingly unique to him and his host of regular collaborators. What qualities constitute the unmistakably Andersonian? Vibrant colors, especially red and yellow. Old buildings. Uniforms. The sounds of the British Invasion. Perfect symmetry. The technology of the mid-twentieth-century as well as vintage American and European design of that era. An eye for the imagined past as well as the past’s imagined future (and its use of Futura). And of course, Bill Murray.
Anderson has used different combinations of these and other aesthetic choices not just in all his full-length films from Bottle Rocket to The Grand Budapest Hotel, but also in his commercials. Given the uncompromising look and feel of his “real” filmography as well as its overall success at the box office, one might not at first imagine Anderson as the kind of auteur with the need, desire, or even ability to make advertisements.
But make them he does, an aspect of his career that actually began with a self-parodying 2004 American Express commercial starring the director himself, hard at work on his latest, albeit fictional, quiet spectacle of meticulousness and anachronism (which also has explosions).
Ever the throwback, Anderson next shot a commercial for Japan, that land where, in the days before Youtube, so many American celebrities used to go to cash in on their image unbeknownst to their Western public. Specifically, he shot it for the Japanese telecommunications giant Softbank, casting Brad Pitt as a Jacques Tati-style vacationer, good-natured if bumbling and possessed of an eye for the ladies, in the French countryside. Two years later, he and frequent writing partner Roman Coppola returned to his beloved early 1960s for Apartomatic, a spot for Stella Artois (a brand that has also employed the likes of Wim Wenders) that brings to life every young man’s fantasy of the ultimate automated bachelor pad.
In 2012, Modern Life and Talk To My Car, a pair of thirty-second commercials for a new Hyundai sedan, brought Anderson back into the present. Naturally, he delivered a present deeply rooted in the dreams of decades past, which, when the idea is to sell a product as saturated with the mythology of the postwar years as an automobile, does the job ideally. “After months of creative development on the new Hyundai Azera we were almost out of time to produce the launch spots,” writes creative director Robert Prins. “At the last minute someone suggested asking Wes Anderson to direct. We all laughed. Then he said yes.” Imagine the resulting jealousy in the conference rooms of ad agencies all over the world, where the talk constantly references Anderson’s work without ever touching the genuine article.
The following year, we featured Castello Cavalcanti, Anderson’s eight-minute short film starring Jason Schwartzman (who became an Anderson regular, and a star in his own right, in Rushmore fifteen years earlier) as a race car driver who crashes into a strangely familiar village somewhere in 1955 Italy. He shot it at Rome’s legendary Cinecittà studio at the behest of a certain Italian brand called Prada (perhaps you’ve heard of them) and in collaboration with Coppola also put together Prada: Candy, a series of three somewhat more straightforward commercials embedded as a playlist just above. Set in France this time, they tell the Jules and Jim-esque story of twin brothers vying for the attention of the same girl, a blonde bon viveuse who happens to have the same name — and if you believe the marketing, the same personality — as Prada’s fragrance.
Just yesterday we featured Come Together, Anderson’s latest commercial directorial effort with Adrien Brody playing the dedicated conductor of a badly delayed passenger train on Christmas Eve. Though it ostensibly comes as nothing more than a promotion for fast-fashion retailer H&M, thousands of fans have already thrilled to this new glimpse into Anderson’s world — a make-believe one, but “we are all make-believe, too, every one of us,” as GQ‘s Chris Heath puts it, “each self-assembled from a hotchpotch of dreams and experiences and wishes and ambitions and setbacks (and, yes, what we buy and what we say and what we wear and the way we choose to wear it, and all the rest of it).” Anderson himself might well agree. But when, we all wonder, will a brand come his way worthy of a commercial starring Bill Murray?
Media vita in morte sumus, goes the medieval line of poetry that lent the English Book of Common Prayer its most memorable expression: “In the midst of life we are in death.” The remainder of the poem extrapolates a theology from this observation, something one can only take on faith. But whatever way we dress up the mystery of death, it remains ever-present and inevitable. Yet we might think of the motto as a palindrome: In the midst of death, we are in life. The dead remain with us, for as long as we live and remember them. This is also a mystery.
Even theoretical physicists must confront the presence of the departed, and few scientists—few writers—have done so with as much poignancy, directness, eloquence, and humor as Richard Feynman, in a letter to his wife Arline written over a year after she died of tuberculosis at age 25. Feynman, himself only 28 years old at the time, sealed the letter, written in 1946, until his own death in 1988. “Please excuse my not mailing this,” he wrote with bitter humor in the postscript, “but I don’t know your new address.” Even in the midst of his profound grief, Feynman’s wit sparkles. It is not a performance for us, his posthumous readers. It is simply the way he had always written—in letter after letter—to Arline.
I know how much you like to hear that — but I don’t only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.
It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing.
But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.
I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector. Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures.
When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.
I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes.
You only are left to me. You are real.
My darling wife, I do adore you.
I love my wife. My wife is dead.
PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address
Arthur Rimbaud, far-seeing prodigy, “has been memorialized in song and story as few in history,” writes Wyatt Mason in an introduction to the poet’s complete works; “the thumbnail of his legend has proved irresistible.” The poet, we often hear, ended his brief but brilliant literary career when he ran off to the Horn of Africa and became a gunrunner… or some other sort of adventurous outlaw character many miles removed, it seems, from the intense symbolist hero of Illuminations and A Season in Hell.
Rimbaud’s break with poetry was so decisive, so abrupt, that critics have spent decades trying to account for what one “hyperbolic assessment” deemed as having “caused more lasting, widespread consternation than the break-up of the Beatles.” What could have caused the young libertine, so drawn to urban voyeurism and the skewering of the local bourgeoisie, to disappear from society for an anonymous, rootless life?
On the other hand, in revisiting the poetry we find—amidst the grotesque, hallucinogenic reveries—that “travel, adventure, and departure on various levels are thematic concerns that run through much of Rimbaud”: from 1871’s “The Drunken Boat” to A Season in Hell’s “Farewell,” in which the poet writes, “The time has come to bury my imagination and my memories! A fitting end for an artist and teller of tales.”
He was only 18 then, in 1873, when he wrote his farewell. Two years later, he would finally end his violent tumultuous relationship with Paul Verlaine, and embark on a series of voyages, first by foot all over Europe, then to the Dutch East Indies, Cyprus, Yemen, and finally Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia), where he settled in Harar, struck up a friendship with the governor (the father of future Emperor Haile Selassie), and became a highly-regarded coffee trader, and yes, gun dealer.
Rimbaud may have left poetry behind, deciding he had realized all he could in language. But he had not given up on approaching his experience aesthetically. Only, instead of trying “to invent new flowers, new stars, new flesh, new tongues,” as he wrote in “Farewell,” he had evidently decided to take the world in on its own terms. He documented his findings in essays on geography and travel accounts and, in 1883, several photographs, including two self-portraits he sent to his mother in May, writing, “Enclosed are two photographs of me which I took.”
You can see one of those portraits at the top of the post, and the other, in much worse shape, below it, and a third self-portrait just below. The “circumstances in which the photographs were taken are quite mysterious,” writes Lucille Pennel at The Eye of Photography.
Starting in 1882, Rimbaud became fascinated with the new technology. He ordered a camera in Lyon in order to illustrate a book on “Harar and the Gallas country,” a camera he received only in early 1883. He also ordered specialized books and photo processing equipment. The planned scientific publication was never realized, and the six photographs are the only trace of Rimbaud’s activity.
“I am not yet well established, nor aware of things,” Rimbaud wrote in the letter to his mother, “But I will be soon, and I will send you some interesting things.” It’s not exactly clear why Rimbaud abandoned his photographic endeavors. He had approached the pursuit not only as hobby, but also as a commercial venture, writing in his letter, “Here everyone wants to be photographed. They even offer one guinea a photograph.”
The comment leads Pennel to conclude “there must have been other photographs, but any trace of them is lost, raising doubts about the degree of Rimbaud’s engagement with photography.”
Perhaps, however, he’d simply decided that he’d done all he could do with the medium, and let it go with a graceful farewell. History, posterity, the cementing of a reputation—these are phenomena that seemed of little interest to Rimbaud. “What will become of the world when you leave?” he had written in “Youth, IV”—“No matter what happens, no trace of now will remain.” In a historical irony, Rimbaud’s photographs “were developed in ‘filthy water,’” notes Pennel, meaning they “will continue to fade until the images are all gone. They are as fleeting as the man with the soles of wind.”
If we wish to see them in person, the time is short. The photo at the top of the post now resides at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The other six are housed at the Arthur Rimbaud Museum in Charleville-Mézières.
How often have you heard the quote in one form or another? “Democracy is the worst form of Government,” said Winston Churchill in 1947, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time….” The sentiment expresses two cultural values many Americans are trained to hold uncritically: the primacy of democracy and the burdensomeness of government as a necessary evil.
In his new book Toward Democracy, Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg argues that these ideas arose fairly recently with “mostly Protestants, at least at first,” notes Kirkus, in whose hands “the idea of democracy as a dangerous doctrine of the mob was reshaped into an ideal.” Much of this transformation “occurred in the former British colonies that became the United States, where, at least from a British nobleman’s point of view, mob rule did take hold.”
The modern revamping of democracy into a sacred set of universal institutions has defined our understanding of the term. Just as the West has co-opted classical Athenian architecture as symbolic of democratic purity, it has often co-opted Greek philosophy. But as anyone who has ever read Plato’s Republic knows, Greek philosophers were highly suspicious of democracy, and could not conceive of a functioning egalitarian society with full suffrage and freedom of speech.
Socrates, especially, says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, “was portrayed in the dialogues of Plato as hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy.” In the ideal society Socrates constructs in the Republic, he famously argues for restricted freedom of movement, strict censorship according to moralistic civic virtues, and a guardian soldier class and the rule of philosopher kings.
In Book VI, Socrates points out the “flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship.” If you were going on a sea voyage, “who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel, just anyone, or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” Unless we wish to be obtusely contrarian, we must invariably answer the latter, as does Socrates’ interlocutor Adeimantus. Why then should just any of us, without regard to level of skill, experience, or education, be allowed to select the rulers of a country?
The grim irony of Socrates’ skepticism, de Botton observes, is that he himself was put to death after a vote by 500 Athenians. Rather than the typical elitism of purely aristocratic thinking, however, Socrates insisted that “only those who had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote.” Says de Botton, “We have forgotten this distinction between an intellectual democracy and a democracy by birthright. We have given the vote to all without connecting it to wisdom.” (He does not tell us whom he means by “we.”)
For Socrates, so-called “birthright democracy” was inevitably susceptible to demagoguery. Socrates “knew how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers” by telling us what we wanted to hear. We should heed Socrates’ warnings against mob rule and the dangers of demagoguery, de Botton argues, and consider democracy as “something that is only ever as good as the education system that surrounds it.” It’s a potent idea, and one often repeated with reference to a similar warning from Thomas Jefferson.
What de Botton does not mention in his short video, however, is that Socrates also advised that his rulers lie to the citizenry, securing their trust not with false promises and seductive blandishments, but with ideology. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes, Socrates “suggests that [the rulers] need to tell the citizens a myth that should be believed by subsequent generations in order for everyone to accept his position in the city”—and to accept the legitimacy of the rulers. The myth—like modern scientific racism and eugenics—divides the citizenry into an essential hierarchy, which Socrates symbolizes by the metals gold, silver, and bronze.
But who determines these categories, or which voters are the more “rational,” or what that category entails? How do we reconcile the egalitarian premises of democracy with the caste systems of the utopian Republic, in which voting “rationally” means voting for the interests of the class that gets the vote? What about the uses of propaganda to cultivate official state ideology in the populace (as Walter Lippman so well described in Public Opinion). And what are we to do with the deep suspicions of, say, Nietzsche when it comes to Socratic ideas of reason, many of which have been confirmed by the findings of neuroscience?
As cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff writes, “Most thought is unconscious, since we don’t have conscious access to our neural circuitry…. Estimates by neuroscientists vary between a general ‘most’ to as much as 98%, with consciousness as the tip of the mental iceberg.” That is to say that—despite our levels of education and specialized training—we “tend to make decisions unconsciously,” at the gut level, “before becoming consciously aware of them.” Even decisions like voting.
These considerations should also inform critiques of democracy, which have not only warned us of its dangers, but have also been used to justify widespread voter suppression and disenfranchisement for reasons that have nothing to do with objective rationality and everything to do with myth and political ideology.
Losing your virginity–it’s not a subject we’ve previously discussed much here at Open Culture. Nor is it a subject about which we’d claim to have great expertise. (After all, you lose it only once in life.)
But performance artist Marina Abramović has given the whole endeavor some serious thought. As she explains in the BBC Radio 4 video above, she waited until she was 24 years old. Having seen precocious friends make mistakes, she handled things in her own special way. A Perry Como album. A bottle of Albanian whisky. An experienced, emotionally uninvolved partner. They all figured into what she calls–now 45 years later–her “really good plan.”
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We can all surely recite some version of the difference between listening and hearing. It’s usually explained by a parent or guardian, with the intent of making us better at following instructions. On the whole, it’s for our own good as children that we pay heed to our elders. But genuine, critical listening is about so much more than perceiving gestures of authority. The avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros, who died this past Thursday at 84, would argue that true listening, what she called “deep listening,” opens us up in radical ways to the world around us, and frees us from the sociopolitical constraints that hem in our senses. “Take a walk at night,” says one Oliveros’ 1974 “Sonic Meditations,” a set of 25 instructions for deep listening, “Walk so silently that the bottom of your feet become ears.”
“Sonic Meditations” emerged after “a period of intense introspection prompted by the Vietnam War,” writes Steve Smith in a New York Times obituary, during which Oliveros “changed creative course” to begin favoring improvisatory works. “All societies admit the power of music or sound,” she wrote in the preface.
“Sonic Meditations,” wrote Oliveros, “are an attempt to return the control of sound to the individual alone, and within groups especially for humanitarian purposes; specifically healing.” Her approach represented the composer giving up control and the primacy of authorship in order to play other roles: healer, guide, and teacher, a role she inhabited for decades as a college professor and author of several books of musical theory.
As you can see in her TEDx lecture at the top of the post, Oliveros always returned from her sonic explorations—such as the 1989 recording titled Deep Listening (hear an excerpt below)—with lessons for us in how to become better, more engaged and empowered listeners, rather than distracted consumers, of music and sound. Even before the 70s, and her turn to music as a meditative discipline informed by Buddhism and Native American ritual, Oliveros’ work disrupted the usual hierarchies of sound. An early adopter of technology, she “was quickly at the vanguard of electronics,” wrote Tom Service in a 2012 Guardian profile, but her “relationship with technology is philosophically ambivalent” given the role of research and development in creating weapons of war.
In early compositions like 1965’s “Bye Bye Butterfly,“ the composer “manipulated a recording of Puccini’s opera ‘Madama Butterfly’ on a turntable,” Smith writes, “augmenting its sounds with oscillators and tape delay.” In the beautifully moving results, further up, she aimed for a critique that “bids farewell not only to the music of the 19th century,” she wrote, “but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.” Music has always been produced and consumed within the social constructions of gender binaries, Oliveros maintained. In a 1970 New York Times essay “And Don’t Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers,” she observed that “unless she is super-excellent, the woman in music will always be subjugated, while men of the same or lesser talent will find places for themselves.”
Throughout her long career, Oliveros created a place for herself, with as much theoretical rigor, playfulness, elegance, and sophistication as her friend and contemporary John Cage. That her substantial body of work has received a fraction of the attention as his may offer an instructive gloss on her contentions of persistent bias. But Oliveros’ work was not reactive; it was constructive, such that her concepts gave rise to what she called a Deep Listening Institute, an “ever-growing community of musicians, artists, scientists, and certified Deep Listening practitioners,” who strive “for a heightened consciousness of the world of sound and the sound of the world.”
But you don’t need specialized certification or training to experience the meditative, consciousness-expanding techniques of Oliveros’ music. On the contrary, she sought to foster “creative innovation across boundaries and across abilities, among artists and audience, musicians and nonmusicians, healers and the physically or cognitively challenged, and children of all ages.” In the Spotify playlist above, hear—or rather listen to—20 hours of Oliveros compositions, many featuring her early experiments with analog electronics, her “expanded instrument system,” and her signature instrument, a digitally-enhanced accordion.
As in the orchestral movement of Deep Listening, the album, Oliveros frequently dialogues with musical traditions, but she refused to allow them any particularly elevated authority over her work. “I’m not dismissive of classical music and the Western canon,” she said in 2012, “It’s simply that I can’t be bound by it. I’ve been jumping out of categories all my life.” As listeners, and readers, of her work, we can all learn to do the same.
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