DRMacIver's Notebook

Thoughts from David R. MacIver


Attractive People on Magazine Covers as Hermeneutical Marketing

From Exuberant Animal by Frank Forencich, page 242:

The images we see on magazine covers are not authentic; they are manufactured. The models, beautiful as they might happen to be at the outset, are simply raw material for the digital hacks who do the ultimate make-over. What we see on the magazine rack are caricatures, not real human beings. They are not us.

No wonder we are confused. No wonder our eyes are out of focus. No wonder everyone looks ugly. By comparison to magazine covers, none of us can come close to measuring up.

Later, on page 243:

In each case, the subliminal message is the same: "Here is what you're supposed to look like. You don't, so now you've got a problem. But if you buy this magazine, and the products advertised in this magazine, you'll have a chance of looking this way, someday." Thus the magazines give a two-pronged marketing approach: create a sense of anxiety and offer a solution, all in one stroke. The strategy is nakedly, shamelessly manipulative.

A couple thoughts sparked immediately from this:

  1. Magazines... those are a boomer thing, right?
  2. Huh, visual hermeneutics.
  3. Huh, the supply of prototypes is a hermeneutic.
  4. Hermeneutics is a great marketing strategy.
  5. There's an interesting market coordination problem here.

"Hermeneutics" means "The Study Interpretation", and "A hermeneutic" is something you use to interpret the world. Also I did say that I see everything as being about hermeneutics.

These were all surprisingly interesting thoughts for a book that I didn't feel like I really got that much out of on my first pass through.

The magazines thing: Magazines still exist, obviously, but this book is from 2006 and I can't tell how much I'm just completely oblivious to the consumption of magazines and how much the world has just genuinely moved on. I feel like social media and youtube and the like have plugged the gap a bit and our supply of visual prototypes of what people are supposed to look like are a bit better than they used to be - still very filtered and aspirational, but not quite the degree of total airbrushing than they used to be then.

The fact that there were purely visual hermeneutics is not something I'd realised before. I tend to think of hermeneutics as quite a verbal thing, because I'm quite a verbal thing, but of course the way we literally look at the world has a huge interpretive element to it. You don't just look at something/someone and then judge after the fact that it's/they're beautiful, beauty is part of how you orient your visual experience of it in the first place.

The use of prototypes as a hermeneutic is also something that... I guess if you'd pointed it out to me I would have said "Yeah, of course" but it wasn't foreground information. A lot of how we interpret the world is going to be by comparison to other things in it, and so the supply of salient things to compare against are a huge part of my hermeneutic.

Hermeneutics as marketing: If you can control how people look at the world it makes it much easier to sell them on your particular solution to the problems that you highlight.

Market coordination: There's something of an arms race here. Each magazine is made more competitive by advertising with pictures that are only slightly more attractive than its competitors, but they then catch up, which is how we end up with this hyperoptimised scenario where people are attractive to a degree that actual humans can't really manage.

I feel like I could expand any one of these into a full notebook post, but I'm supposed to be focused on other things this week, so I won't.


Identity and Legitimisation of Knowledge

PSA: Posts this week are going to be especially short because I need to focus on actual writing for my PhD this week. I'll just be copying out interesting passages from random pages of random books from my "canon" and making very short commentaries on them.

From Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing by Miranda Fricker, page 9:

It is easy to see that [a silencing of a woman by a man] involves an exercise of power, of of gender power in particular. But what do we mean by power? And how does gender power relate to the general notion of social power? In order to paint a portrait of testimonial injustice and to home in on its distinctive central case, we need to answer these questions about the nature of social power in general and the particular kind of social power (of which gender power is one instance) that I shall call identity power.

The "testimonial injustice" that Fricker is talking about here is a notion she introduces in this book, and is an injustice done to people in rejecting their testimony based on their identity - e.g. in the case she is talking about, rejecting someone's testimony because she is a woman.

I've just finished reading Lyotard's "The Postmodern Condition", an experience which I cannot really recommend, and in it he talks about the role of legitimisation in knowledge - i.e. if we think of a community of practice as telling each other stories about the world, what are the social practices involved in accepting some of those stories into our canon as legitimate knowledge. He argues that sciences in particular can be thought of as having a set of particularly stringent set of criteria for legitimisation, and tend to reject other modes of legitimisation as hopelessly fuzzy and informal.

Read in this light, I think one interesting lens on Fricker's work would be this: One of the roles of social power is control over the legitimisation process for knowledge. When social power is rooted in identities, this has the particularly pernicious effect of resulting in a community's canon of recognised legitimate knowledge that systemically underrepresents knowledge originating in marginalized groups.

However, as has been pointed out before by Kirsty Dotson, Fricker has badly misunderstood one aspect of the nature of knowledge in a way that this highlights: There is no single canon, but instead many loosely overlapping ones.

This misunderstanding is also present in her notion of identity power. In fact, identity power does not exist, because social power does not exist in individuals. Social power is a relationship between an individual and a community. The same identity that denies you credibility in one community may gain you credibility in another.

That is not to say that the problems of testimonial injustice she is pointing out don't exist - they absolutely do - but that they need to be more carefully contextualised. "You're only oppressed by the dominant community who controls most of the economy" is not actually any more reassuring than thinking you're oppressed in some absolute sense, but the fine grained distinction is still useful.

This is particularly significant in another book I've read recently, which is James Scott's Domination and the Arts of Resistance, where he introduces the idea of the hidden transcript - essentially the canon of knowledge that is present within a marginalised group and is actively concealed (possibly by hiding it in plain sight) from the more dominant group.

Putting these together, one way of looking at Dotson's notion of contributory injustice, which is the refusal of dominant groups to take on the ideas of the marginalised (e.g. white people refusing to acknowledge the idea of racism), is that sometimes the transcripts of marginalised groups are hidden by the marginalised, but equally often they're instead ignored by the powerful.


Feet as a Foundational Skill

"Fix a man's feet, and you will make him comfortable for a month. Teach a man to walk properly, and you will make him comfortable for life. Therefore denying people access to good foot education is key to monthly recurring revenue." - Ancient Capitalist Proverb.

I'm currently working on being good at feet.

Being bad at feet sounds ridiculous, right? Almost as ridiculous as being bad at breathing. I am bad at both feet and breathing, and I'd wager that many of you reading this are too.

One of the reasons you can tell that I am bad at feet is that I've spent the last 10-15 years in semiconstant pain. Not, you know, a lot of pain. Just a dull ache in most of the joints of my right leg that waxes and wanes but never really goes away. I've always been a bit reluctant to identify as someone who experiences chronic pain - it doesn't really match the definition of chronic pain, you know, other than being pain and being chronic - other people have it much worse than me (this is a bullshit line of thinking and I know it's a bullshit line of thinking. I have now more or less reconciled the alief and recognised that, but it took a while).

Another way in which I am bad at feet is that standing for long periods of time is painful. Walking is generally fine, but if I stand for more than about half an hour my legs will be very sad and probably hate me the next day.

I've at various points tried to get medical professionals to take these problems seriously, but it's never worked very well. The best I got is about a year and a half ago I got custom insoles made. They... maybe helped a bit? Not much.

But now, in one of the rare upsides of the world going to hell, my chronic pain is at the lowest it's been since my early 20s - it's not gone, but it's mostly retreated to a vague twinge in my hip (which is where all this started). I attribute this largely to the almost total lack of wearing shoes, especially as it's accelerated since I've switched to barefoot shoes for running.

Standing for long periods of time is still a bit tricky, so I'm working on arch strength. I've switched to working standing in twenty minute stints recently, and doing a bunch of exercises for strengthening my arches, added a nightly (self) foot massage to my care routine, and I'm looking into toe straightening (one of the structural failings of my feet is that my outer toes curl inwards. I'm pretty sure this is related, because combining arch exercises with toe straightening is excruciating). These might or might not work, but I'm hopeful.

Anyway, this isn't really a post about feet. This is a post about being bad at things.

At no point in the more than a decade that I've been dealing with this problem did I consider that the root issue of my chronic pain might be that I was using my feet wrong. I knew that the problem with standing was related to flat feet, but I thought of that as an intrinsic structural issue rather than something that I could work on by changing how I use my feet. At no point did it occur to me that feet were a foundational skill that I could just work on getting better at and that this would significantly improve my life.

How much would it improve my life? Hard to say. Not being in constant pain is a pretty good improvement to start with but consider also...

(As an aside, being bad at standing is something I've mentioned before as an illegible marginalisation)

I'm not saying that these are the only causes, because very little is monocausal. I'm saying that among the weird and varied landscapes of life, these have exerted consistent pressure in some fairly negative directions.

I suspect there are a lot of foundational skills like this, and we currently don't have any infrastructure for identifying them, or learning to be better at them.

This is particularly problematic because being bad at these foundational skills is something you can kinda get away with early on - you have more energy to power through them, and have not been subjected to the constant low-grade degradation of your body (or mind! Much of the emotions as legacy code model plays out this way too) that being bad at these skills causes, so by the time you start to notice the effects you're at the point where you feel like you should have life sorted out and you just treat these as the inevitable consequences of aging, when really they're a sign that you need to relearn a foundational skill.


Feeling Good About Being Good

I'm currently working through a (more or less) full reread of Voices: The Educational Formation of Conscience, so you're going to get treated to a lot of extracts from it. Today's extract comes from page 41:

[...] normation just is this structuring of the emotions of self-assessment -shame, guilt, embarassment, pride, and the like-both in our self-assessment and in our judgements of others. It follows, of course, that it structures also the positive emotions companion to these that I have called the emotions of self-assessment. That is to say normation structures also the appearance of elation, pride, self-assurance, and the joy and hope that accompany these. By saying that normation structures these emotions, I mean to refer not to the logic of their composition, whether they presuppose some propositional content, as in one or another version of a cognitive theory of the emotions. I mean to refer rather to their focus or object. Normation gives content to these emotions inasmuch as it provides their object. It tells us what things are going to provoke such emotions. In short, normation makes these emotions specific. Structuring them in this way is precisely what mere compliance is powerless to accomplish. Again, absent these emotions and the norms themselves will vanish. Observance will deconstruct into mere compliance, governance into mere behavior.

This continues to explore the theme of the connection between morality and emotional health that I highlighted before.

To unpack what Green is saying in this:

So the general point of the quote is that this process of internalising moral norms is about structuring how we feel about action: When we do something we feel is morally good, we feel good, when we do something we feel is morally bad, we feel bad. Observance to moral norms is defined by part of the structure of our emotional responses.

One of the interesting things to me about this passage is its emphasis on both the negative and positive emotional responses to observing a norms (it also amuses me that he lists "pride" under both). I don't know about you, but I think of morality as primarily experienced through negative emotions - especially guilt and shame - but there are of course positive emotions associated with it.

Part of why I've been interested in Virtue Ethics recently is that it feels that this is the only one of the currently extant ethical frameworks that get this right (and, interestingly, although Green doesn't make this explicit, his voices of conscience sure sound a lot like virtues to me). If you are striving for excellence, there is a sort of joy in that. If morality is nothing more than a series of duties, or a number you are seeking to make constantly go up, then morality is purely a burden, a stick to beat ourselves with.

I previously wrote about the use of fine-grained ethical distinctions - in particularly the distinction between it being virtuous to do something and being a duty to do something - and I think these track pretty well with emotional reactions. If you fail in your moral duties, it's proper to feel guilty over that. If you have a pattern of failing in your moral duties, it's proper to feel shame over that. But if you exemplify your moral virtues, it's also proper to feel joy in that.

This brings the safety / desire model into the question of how to be a better person - if we can take joy in our moral successes, then we will want to be better people, and this will drive us to become such.


Against the Classification of Books

From How to Read a Book, p 64:

We have already discussed a rough classification of books. The main distinction, we said, was between works of fiction, on the one hand, and works conveying knowledge, or expository works, on the other hand. Among expository works, we can further distinguish history from philosophy, and both from science and mathematics.

This is part of a general section about how analytical reading should start with the question "What sort of book is this?"

On page 60, they list this as the first rule of analytical reading:

You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.

The authors do not, frankly, justify this very well. At the end of this chapter their argument is this:

Now, just as there is a difference in the art of teaching in different fields, so there is a reciprocal difference in the art of being taught. The activity of the student must somehow be responsive to the activity of the instructor. The relation between books and their readers is the same as that between teachers and their students. Hence, as books differ in the kinds of knowledge they have to communicate, they proceed to instruct us differently; and, if we are to follow them, we must learn to read each kind in an appropriate manner.

To which I offer the following responses:

  1. A book is not a person, and our relationship is very different to that of a person.
  2. The argument is nonsense for people too.

You can engage with a book however you like. There's no moral obligation to engage with a book as the authors want you to - if you want to read a book of science through a literary criticism lens, or a book of literary criticism through a scientific lens, you can.

Even the practical vs theoretical distinction is dubious: I read a lot of philosophy. This philosophy is, for the most part, eminently theoretical, but I am reading it for practical reasons, to help me make sense of things. This requires me to do a lot of translation by doing the active work of framing practical situations using the tools provided. This is not a style of engagement that a philosopher would generally be receptive to (it depends on the philosopher of course) and they would probably find it quite frustrating. A book can't be frustrated with me, so I'm free to use it however I like.

It's certainly true that treating a science book as a science book and a piece of literature as a piece of literature will result in results that are more... in line with the intent of the author I guess, and you should probably do that more often than not - it's useful to learn the norms before you violate them - but they don't necessarily produce more interesting outcomes, and different reads will tend to help you bridge the gaps between different areas of knowledge.

The second problem is that the idea that coarse grained classifications are anything like enough. People have very individual styles and, yes, those are rooted in their communities of practice, but those communities of practice are only loosely defined by disciplines - they're often very different between subdisciplines, departments, individual teacher / student lineages, etc. You need to do at least as much work to identify those individual differences in engagement as you do to identify the genre.

Instead of asking "What sort of book is this?" I think the questions you should be asking are:

  1. Can I engage with this book in a way that I want to?
  2. If not, where can I learn the skills for doing so?

Knowing what sort of book it is can be helpful for answering the question, but often it is going to be much more about your relationship to the subject matter than it is about the type of book per se.