Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Sigmund Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory

Sigmund Freud belongs to a group of select few who have generated work so creative and provocative that it has had a revolutionary impact on the course of human values, thought and behavior. Freud’s fundamental assumption about mental life is that it is divided into three parts: the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious. The conscious operates merely on the surface of personality and plays a relatively minor role in personality development and functioning.

While it is true that psychologically healthy people have a greater awareness of their experiences than do unhealthy ones, still Freud believed that even relatively mature people are governed by unconscious needs and conflicts. Unconscious can consist of repressed memories of which we are not aware and bringing them to awareness can cause tremendous anxiety. A key point in his theory is that such repressed memories seek expression in various defensive, disguised and distorted ways. Unconscious ideas, memories, and experiences may continually interfere with conscious and rational behavior.

Traditions of Western thought which emphasized human rationality and the virtues of ethical conduct, were shocked to learn that human beings are often irrational and that they continually engage in internal struggles to keep their sexual and aggressive impulses in check. Freud removed humans from their narcissistic pedestals and forced them to examine the dark side of their natures. At first he was publicly reviled and scorned but eventually investigators in many disciplines started taking his ideas seriously. Today Freud’s influence is world wide. Scholars in literature are fond of using psychoanalytic constructs to explain motives of fictional characters, and many Freudian concepts such as Oedipal conflicts, “ego trips,” “Freudian slips,” denial, repression, regression etc., have been adopted by laypeople. Whether we ultimately reject or accept his view of human personality, Freud has clearly earned his place in history.

Discsussion Questions: Freud thought that the major conflict experienced by individuals was between their needs to gratify their impulses (id), and society's need to control (superego) the expression of such individual needs. What do you think can be the best possible solution to this problem?

Do you agree with Freud that psychologically healthy people are adjusted satisfactorily in two major areas of life--love and work? Can you think of any other areas in which satisfactory adjustments must be made if people are to be psychologically healthy?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Personality & its Development: Introduction

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown,
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

The Player King in Hamlet

Personality psychology is a flourishing area of research and offers valuable insights for understanding why we are the way we are, and if and how can we change. The phenomena encompassed by human personality, however, are far too complex and diverse for any one theory to unite them into a single theoretical framework. Thus no theorist so far has been able to come up with a comprehensive theory of personality; there are as many definitions of personality as there are personality theorists.

Please join us at Brooklyn Book Talk as we discuss in December through January, some of the major theoretical perspectives on personality such as psychoanalytic, trait, cognitive, humanistic/existential and social-behavioristic, and analyze their strengths and weaknesses. Understanding personality of self and others in a more objective manner can not only help satisfy our curiosity but can lead us to make adaptive changes, wiser choices and live more satisfying lives.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Green Metropolis by David Owen

David Owen and Nature & Parks

David Owen has what seems to me to be contradictory views on nature. On p. 192, he discusses the growing trend toward "videophilia" - Americans, particularly children, stay home and watch movies rather than leave their homes and exert themselves in the natural world. This is connected to the growing rise of obesity (which is at 42% even in Manhattan, the island that Owen views as the model for the rest of the world). At the same time, Owen also advocates:

"A sensitive person's first reaction to the mounting evidence that Americans. especially young Americans, may be losing interest in directly experiencing the natural world is likely to be of regret and loss, or even despair. But is it necessarily a bad thing, globally speaking? It seems perverse to say so, but sitting indoors playing video games is easier on the environment than any number of (formerly) popular outdoor recreational activities, including most of the ones that the most committed environmentalists tend to favor for themselves. In the end, it may not be a bad thing for the earth or the human race if increasing numbers of Americans would rather watch our shrunken wildernesses on TV" (p. 199-200).

It is this quote that drove me out of the hour into a two-hour trek in the park across the street from me. What Owen appears to not consider is this mentality will lead to the destruction of the parks. If you can just watch them on TV or experience them in a virtual environment, then why keep the actual park? Sell off the land and build condos on it, flood it with a dam, strip mine the mountains into plains. Shoot all the animals in canned hunts.

I recently went to a community board meeting where someone present at the meeting complained that raccoons were getting into her garbage and couldn't the board put down poison to kill all the raccoons in the neighborhood. I see raccoons all the time - in the spring, I see raccoon babies with their mom. I also see possums, chipmunks, and smell skunks. It would never occur to me to kill these animals; watching their families enriches my life and those of my neighbors. We simply keep the garbage safely contained until garbage day to minimize problems. Since we have less of a disconnect with wild animals, we are able to see the value of their lives and to work to preserve them.

Owen also seems to prefer sanitized parks. In his comment on Central Park, he notes:

"Central Park covers 843 acres. Those acres would work far better, and function less as a barrier to the overall human flow, if they had been situated somewhere other than in the center of the city, or were penetrated by many more artificial attractions (concession stands, restaurants, sports facilties, museums, playgrounds, theaters) designed to generate and sustain an unbroken chain of lively interaction all the way across the park" (p. 169-170).

My reaction to this passage was, once again, to go for a walk in my park. I live next to Forest Park. Forest Park, along with Central Park and Propect Park, were all three designed by Frederick Olmstead. Olmstead's park designs usually include a wild area (in Central Park this is called The Ramble) that recreates the original forest. In Forest Park, this area is an oak wood crossed by dirt paths. When you enter this oak wood, you enter the Queens of four hundred years ago, before Henry Hudson sailed to Manhattan. All you can see are trees with birds flitting around and chipmunks and squirrels scurrying at your feet. You can smell the rich loam of the forest floor. Invariably I (and whoever is with me) get lost for an hour or so before I locate a trail marking that leads me to the perimeter of the forest and one of the perimeter paths that border the street. My visits are sometimes mildly frightening as I have no sense of direction, but always refreshing.

The beauty of Central Park is that it allows Manhattanites to have a similar experience. Anyone who lives in Manhattan can easily visit a concession stand or museum or theater - they trip over them on the street. Entering a bird-filled forest where for an hour you can get away from people only to re-emerge into Manhattan is an enormous luxury for people who spend their lives in extremely small apartments. Owen, a suburbanite, doesn't want a park - he wants an open-air mall in the middle of the city. I doubt that most city-dwellers will agree with him.

In my next post, I will discuss the pros and cons of sprawl.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Green Metropolis by David Owen

Urban Farms and Locavorism

On pages 300-304, David Owen gives a compelling argument about why locavorism is actually an energy-intensive, inefficient way to produce food:

"The distance that a particular food item travels between its grower and its ultimate consumer is not a accurate measure of the amount of energy that was required to put it on the table...The California raspberries I purchase at my grocery store have a smaller carbon footprint than the local raspberries I picked recently at a farm just a couple of towns away, because the California raspberries crossed the country in a shipment containing tons of other produce and therefore represent a minute expenditure of fuel per berry, while the local raspberries were obtained by my wife and me during a thirty mile round-trip in a car whose only other cargo was ourselves" (p. 300).

Owen goes on to further develop the idea that costs other than those of transportation such as labor, fertilizers, etc. must be counted when the cost of locally-produced food is calculated. He also criticizes Dickson Despommier's idea of "vertical farming" for creating wasteful infrastructure needed to build vertical farms in the city since Owen feels Manhattan land could be used for more valuable things than farming.

Interestingly enough, Despommier was one of the speakers at the Municipal Art Society Urban Farming panel that I attended on November 4th and he discussed vertical farms (his book about them will be published next year). He advocated building the farm as a working component of the building design. For example, greenhouse gases from the farm would be used to heat the building. One building being discussed would have a cafe that used only food grown in the building's farm.

Another speaker on the panel mentioned that if all the yards in the five boroughs were used to grow food, then 750,000 people could be fed from it. Despommier talked about the enormous amount of grey water that NYC produces every day - enough, if treated (in my opinion) to water those yards while growing water-hungry vegetables. Other panelists talked about rooftop gardens but warned that the structure of the roof must be able to accommodate the weight of wet soil. While it would be pricey to retrofit roofs, it is possible for new buildings, like the one being discussed, could be designed with the idea of a roof garden. However, as Owen points out, the increased load-bearing capacities of the roof design would be an extra cost to be factored into the cost of any food that it produces.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability by David Owen

Introduction and disclaimer:

I read this book last month when I was on vacation. I had just stayed up to six AM because of a twelve hour marathon of season 4 of Doctor Who, slept for eight hours, and awoke at 2 PM with a migraine. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the sky was blue, and I had not yet gotten out of bed. Overcome with guilt, I decided to read an educational book with my coffee and picked Green Metropolis since it appeared to advocate cities. Amazingly enough, after one hour I felt the need to go to my nearby park and commune with nature in its relatively wild oak forest. I'm not sure how happy that urge would make David Owen.

In the first chapter, David Owen admits that he and his wife, empty-nesters, live in a large house in a small town in Connecticut. He uses a huge amount of heat and energy. He drives everywhere and uses big box stores. I appreciated his disclosure of his lifestyle, which directly contradicts what he advocates in his book. As such, I wish to make a disclosure statement about myself before I lead this virtual discussion.

I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens in a pre-war building. I use lots of paper towels, strip-mined cat litter, and plastic bags daily while taking care of my elderly cats. I don't feed them organic cat food (they refuse to eat the expensive food or use PC cat litter). I also don't use energy-saver light bulbs since the day when one of the cats broke a lamp, and ran in with a piece of broken light bulb as a present for me. Since these bulbs contain mercury, I don't want them where the cats get mercury on their mouths or paws. I recycle, I am not a vegetarian, and I can rarely make it to a farmer's market because there are few in Queens and I usually work Saturdays. I decided not to join a CSA since there are none where I work and I would have to take time off from work to pick up my order at a distant location.

Tonight I will be attending a Jane Jacobs Forum lecture at the Municpal Art Society about urban farming:

Tomorrow will be my first post where I discuss David Owen's views on urban farms as well as what I've gathered from my own research and the lecture.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Self, Identity and Free Will

Self and Identity have great relevance when we think of ourselves in terms of our political and social identities and their implications. We consciously or unconsciously, adapt to our given identity at various stages of self-development. Self-development can be conceptualized in a variety of ways depending upon which developmental psychologist you refer to i.e. from pre-conventional to conventional to post-conventional (Lawrence Kohlberg), or from egocentric to ethnocentric to world-centric (Jane Loevinger), or from mythic to rational to pluralistic (Gene Gebser) etc. Identity or perhaps more accurately, our current stage of development, influences us in our everyday life choices--choices that can range from mundane to momentous, from love to hate, from peace to war. For instance, religious, national and ethnic identities have been and continue to be major factors behind choices which lead to conflict and violence. But our choices may seem to us as if they were based on reason and “free will” rather than some unconscious or rationalized aspect of our identity. Since identity we are born into is a chance of birth, and every choice we make has a predominant unconscious dimension to it, how can we be sure that our choices are rational and optimal? Murathan Mungan, contemporary Turkish poet asserts that "all types of identities--ethnic, national, religious, sexual--or whatever else, can become your prison after a while. The identity that you stand up for can enslave you and close you to the rest of the world." Do you agree?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Self & Identity: Introduction

Over the last few decades, the intertwined concepts of self and identity have been systematically researched from many perspectives and some of the findings are nothing less than paradigmatic. In much of the 20th century, behaviorism and psychoanalysis dominated academic psychology but now with the emergence of cognitive science and cross-cultural research, the understandings of self and identity have made immense progress and have significant implications for matters as salient as perception and personality, ethics and education, aesthetics and politics, culture and metaphysics. Indeed, our whole experience of being in the world, as unique individuals as well as members of specific groups, is influenced by such understandings.

From one perspective, identity is the group within the self; from another perspective, it is the self within the group. Much of what we desire to do or what happens to us in the world is significantly influenced by the way world perceives us, and the way we define ourselves--consciously or unconsciously. The process of making the unconscious (biological, cultural, personal), relatively more conscious over time, is indeed what distinguishes human beings from all other animals. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the human capacity for objective self-awareness is that it allows human beings to control their own behavior, to make thoughtful choices and take full responsibility for them.

The purpose of this month-long discussion will be to disseminate and integrate some major interdisciplinary thoughts about self and identity and discern their implications for self-awareness and self-education.

Please share your thoughts and observations as we develop this discussion. Thanks.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Shop Class As Soulcraft: Critiquing Crawford

Crawford's critique of the modern working world is quite good, in my view. Unfortunately, I think that Crawford begins to stumble when he moves from critique to prescription, which at the risk of some oversimplification boils down to “big is bad, small is beautiful.” He calls for a widespread return to localized, face-to-face economic exchanges through more small entrepreneurship, a vision based in part on an overly romanticized concept of the good old days and of manual labor generally that’s probably not possible for many people to pursue.

Before I detail some of specific criticisms on this point, I'd like to pose a few questions:

1) Why do you think that the interest in manual labor that seems to have gripped the reading public is occurring now?

2) Do you think it's possible or desirable for more people to go into business for themselves as a way of avoiding the ills of modern white-collar life?

3) What about labor unions and other worker organizations? How could they help to address some of the issues Crawford addresses in his book?

4) What might citizens organize for politically in order to make work better?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft: Crawford's critique of modern work

I have summarized the main points in Crawford's critique of the nature of the modern working world below, with some of my own commentary. To help guide discussion, I would like to propose a few questions:

1) What do you make of his argument that truly understanding how things work in the world requires getting one's hands dirty, so to speak? Does this idea apply only to manual labor or to other fields as well?

2) Does college really serve much of a function today besides socializing people to be "good workers", as Crawford argues, or does it continue to educate students into being good citizens and well-rounded human beings as well? If you have attended college or are currently in college, does his criticism reflect your experience as a college student?

3) If you are or have been a white-collar knowledge worker, has your working life been impacted by the threat of outsourcing/offshoring or the process of degradation that Crawford describes? If so, how?

4) Is there a relationship between the degradation of work as Crawford sees it and the state of our polity and culture? What might some of the broader social effects of a degraded working life be?

5) What do you make of Crawford's critique of consumerism?

Feel free to comment on my commentary as well.


For Crawford, the central problem of modernity is a struggle for individual agency, that is, the capacity of human beings to have some sort of control over the things that have the biggest impact on their lives. Work definitely falls into this category, as we spend most of our waking hours engaged in it, preparing for it, and recovering from it. But the nature of the modern world constantly undermines this goal. “Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces,” Crawford observes. “We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.”

Because many of us in advanced capitalist countries are engaged in occupations that don’t involve the production of any tangible, material goods, we often don’t know exactly what is expected from us in our work or what its larger purpose is, and this situation can create serious psychological and social trauma. As Crawford observes of young people entering the working world, “the college student interviews for a job as a knowledge worker, and finds that the corporate recruiter never asks him about his grades and doesn’t care what he majored in. He senses that what is demanded of him is not knowledge but rather that he project a certain kind of personality, an affable complaisance. Is all his hard work in school somehow just for show – his ticket to a Potemkin meritocracy? There seems to be a mismatch between form and content, and a growing sense that the official story we’ve been telling ourselves about work is somehow false.”

For decades, we have been told by supposed experts that to avoid a life of mindless toil and the possibility of deskilling and offshoring, pursuit of a college education and a white-collar, “knowledge work” is necessary. But scientific innovation has made any job that can possibly be done remotely through advanced communications technology subject to export and to relentless deskilling and degradation, not just blue-collar manufacturing work. Somewhat surprisingly for a conservative, Crawford draws on the work of Marxist economic historian Harry Braverman to analyze the way capitalist industrialization has effected the separation of thinking from doing wherever possible and to provide caution to those who don’t see the value of work that can’t be outsourced or deskilled. “If you need a deck built, or your car fixed, the Chinese are of no help, Crawford notes impishly, “because they are in China.”

Paradoxically, by promoting a vision of liberation from responsibility through technologically mediated production on one hand and rampant, compensatory consumerism on the other, contemporary society actually makes us less free by subordinating us to the power of the market. As Crawford argues, “the activity of giving form to things seems increasingly the business of a collectivized mind, and from the standpoint of any particular individual, it feels like this forming has already taken place, somewhere else… But because the field of options generated by market forces maps a collective consciousness, the consumer’s vaunted freedom within it might be understood as a tyranny of the majority that he has internalized.” If anything, the critique of commodity fetishism advanced by Marx one hundred and fifty years ago and echoed here by Crawford has only become more relevant and terrifying.

All this has a literally demoralizing effect on working people, and educates us into a certain way of looking at the world and our jobs. “Degraded work entails not just dumbing down but also a certain unintended moral reeducation…We have all had the experience of dealing with a service provider who seems to have been reduced to a script-reading automaton. We have also heard the complaints of employers about not being able to find conscientious workers. Are these two facts perhaps related? There seems to be a vicious circle in which degraded work plays a pedagogical role, forming workers into material that is ill-suited for anything but the overdetermined world of careless labor.” Needless to say, this moral and intellectual degradation makes many of us ill-suited to participate fully and effectively as citizens in a supposedly democratic society that is less responsive to the needs of its people as it becomes increasingly dominated by corporate power.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford

If this recession has taught us anything, it’s that what used to be glowingly described as the Great American Jobs Machine may be beyond repair. The state of job market is so devastatingly bleak that pundits and economists celebrated when the economy shed 247,000 jobs in July, instead of the 600,000 to 700,000 jobs per month it hemorrhaged earlier this year. While I suppose it’s good that the economy sucks somewhat less these days, all signs point toward a jobless recovery. The official unemployment rate remained steady at just under 10 percent, but the Labor Department’s broader and less heralded measure that takes into account the underemployed and “discouraged workers” who have stopped looking for jobs is over 16 percent. Even more discouraging is the news that the problem of long-term unemployment is sharply intensifying. The number of Americans unemployed for 15 weeks or more was 7.88 million, the highest figure ever recorded, and the average unemployed person has been jobless for over 25 weeks. Giddy talk about “green shoots” has obscured the fact that even if the recession ends on paper in the next couple of months, its effects are going to linger in the everyday lives of (possibly) working people for years to come.

But even if Team Obama can restore the status quo ante and succeed in getting the Great American Jobs Machine going again, would that be such a great thing? After all, in the halcyon days of the late 1990s and the pre-recession boom, many of America’s fastest growing occupations were the kind that Barbara Ehrenreich took on in her book Nickel and Dimed - highly precarious service sector jobs that pay little, provide minimal or no benefits, and are physically and psychologically enervating. Even many of us fortunate enough to have made our way into the cadre of white-collar “symbolic analysts” at the heart of an information-driven economy became subject to the same deskilling and off-shoring that has decimated the ranks of America’s blue-collar working class over the last three decades. The lean, mean Great American Jobs Machine of business press lore tended to resemble a meat grinder more than anything else for most of us.

The time is ripe for a wide-ranging reevaluation of the ways in which we go about securing our livelihoods in the world, and the book publishers of the English-speaking world seem to agree. In recent months, a spate of books on work has hit the shelves, including Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford.

By now, anyone with any exposure to Crawford’s book probably knows at least something of the man’s background. The marketing department at Penguin Books certainly won’t let us forget. Educated in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, he renounced his sinecure as the head of a Washington think-tank (as far as I can tell, it was related to the conservative American Enterprise Institute in some fashion) to retire to Norfolk, Virginia to open his own vintage motorcycle repair shop. While many reviewers have conceived of the book primarily as some sort of self-help or career advice manual, Shop Class as Soulcraft is an engaging, fairly serious work of ethical and moral inquiry and sociopolitical criticism.

Crawford’s position is deeply conservative, but unlike many contemporary conservatives he has a deep skepticism about the goodness of modern corporate capitalism. He seeks to conserve what he sees as the best aspects of work generally and the manual trades in particular from the relentless onslaught of corporate power and the culture of consumption, which he sees as the most dangerous current threats to individual liberty rather than the state. Don’t fret, however. The book is not always as heavy as my description so far might make it out to be. There are a number of entertaining discussions of the life and work of a mechanic, and of the absurdity of Crawford’s previous incarnations as a harried cubicle dweller.

We will explore various aspects of Crawford’s book this month, but before we get to some of his specific arguments I would like to start the discussion by inviting you all to share some of your thoughts about the nature of the modern workplace. What do you find to be the best and worst aspects of work? How do you find meaning in your work (if any)? If you could change one thing about work, what would it be? Don’t worry, I won’t share the comments with your boss!

If you can't get the book right away, I recommend checking out this recent author talk:

or this recently published article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Issue of Intelligence

In Outliers Gladwell addresses the question of IQ during the discussion of success and builds a case for it being secondary to other factors such as social skills and “social intelligence.” He gives several examples of people who did not becoming successful in spite of incredible IQ levels because of their socioeconomic class and how that affected the parenting they received. Remember the man who just couldn’t communicate well enough to jump the hurdles of academic rules and now, although he thinks and writes with his amazing level of ability, he is not a college graduate and therefore cannot get published? Juxtaposed to him was Robert Oppenheimer who was given the responsibility for the Manhattan Project even though earlier he committed acts that were illegal and hinted at mental illness. He, however had social intelligence and was able to function and achieve while many highly intelligent people cannot.

IQ has been a controversial subject for many years and is hotly debated; Gladwell seems to make a good case for why it does not guarantee success in life or that the individual will be able to use their ability that was the result of a test they took as a child. Maybe some people just have goals that don’t necessitate using the limits of their ability.

How do you stand on this issue?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Outliers Continued: Redefining Success

A few thoughts for discussion from the blog’s comments and my own curiosity about our society and success.

Someone else asked about success and happiness. It is obvious the subject is much larger than the aspects Gladwell covers but it is a great issue to discuss.

The question of success at the expense of others by people such as Bernard Madoff, or even Carnegie and Rockefeller whom Gladwell discusses in Outliers, is something to think about and a participant has mentioned it. Gladwell doesn’t discuss this in the book because he’s discussing particular kinds of success out of all people who have achieved what society has labeled successful. These type of people don’t seem to have any birth, place, or family advantages as the people discussed in Outliers did but they seem to have another trait in common - greed and a disregard for others.

I propose that in the 21st century our possessions define us and we have to achieve financial success to maintain a level of income, or rather credit, to support our habits. What if we weren’t constantly updating our personal technological devices and equipment? What if most people could only consider replacement when the old stuff completely died and then they had to save or spend savings which would often affect their retirement years? Planned obsolesce has turnover phases of months for some electronics.

Books and TV shows on organizing our “stuff” are extremely popular. There are at least three TV shows that have been running for several seasons and a previous one which ended after several seasons. Could we be happier if we were forced to live lives with fewer possessions and redefine success?

Debbie Pecora

Friday, July 31, 2009

Outliers: Introduction

Malcolm Gladwell has done it again. He’s created another bestseller that gathers together facts and situations that often seem unrelated but with his vision on sociology and psychology create a fascinating new way to study subjects. In Outliers the subject is success. What does it take for one person or group to stand out from the rest of us? From Canadian hockey players to the Beatles his thesis is convincing.

When first read the term outliers seems a strange title because the word is not familiar to most people but instead of simply defining it he begins by relating the fascinating example of the small Pennsylvanian town that doesn’t fit any of the usual patterns of health because, as it turns out, of its totally unique culture of an intricate social life in which the intimate relationships among the citizens results in long and happy lives. They are the first example of outliers.

As with his previous successful bestselling books The Tipping Point and Blink, which remain very popular at bookstores and especially at our library years after being initially published, his unique viewpoints on society and his writing style make Outliers a fascinating view of society. Readers can’t wait to see what topic he will next tackle.

As an aside, our statistics for how many bloggers are reading our site are huge compared to the number of people who actually participate in the discussions. Please join in with your opinions and observations. Any thoughts and opinions are welcome and create conversation on the blog. Please participate and help create a lively discussion with a variety of viewpoints. Thanks

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Narcissism Wrap-up

This will be my final post on Twenge's The Narcissism Epidemic. I recommend checking out the 53 page PDF file that contains all of Twenge's sources:
The notes for Chapter 10 - Materialism: The Spending Explosion and the Impact on the Environment are particularly relevant to our online discussion.

I would like to thank the numerous people who made thoughtful posts that led to some excellent online discussions. For those of you who have just found this blog, please feel free to add to the online discussion by posting your thoughts. Twenge's previous book, Generation Me, is also a fast and thought-provoking read.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Narcissism and self-esteem

Twenge's co-author, the father of a young child, is particularly critical of the self-esteem movement. He even tells a story of how he persuaded his child's daycare not to force the children to sing a particularly horrible song about how special they were. He and Twenge emphasize that the cult of "specialness" leads to narcissism.

Part of the problem is that while we are all unique individuals, we are not necessarily "special". We all need to eat, have a place to live, a job to support us, and some social contact. Most people have some kind of special skill, whether it is cooking, doing home repair, or knitting, that brings them joy outside work and may even be incorporated into their work life. However, we still all share what Maslow refers to as the five basic needs.

The emphasis on "specialness" may be creating a burden on people. They feel forced to demonstrate why they are special. Social networking is one way of doing so. Twenge describes the phenomena of the "indigo children" - special children who are described as artistic, don't like to follow rules, and hate to wait on line. As I read the description of these children provided by Twenge (which was admittedly quite short - The Complete Idiot's Guide to Indigo Children is a fuller source of information or check out which is the site of the authors who originated the term), my reaction was that they sounded like people whom I regularly encounter when I go to the post office - explaining why they should jump the line and the post office should accept their calligraphied boxes sealed with duct tape and odd bits of yarn rather than insist on a legibly printed lable and offical clear postal sealing tape. Indigo children may explain why people are now using UPS rather than USPS - you can avoid the indigo children in the queue.

However, do we want to encourage this concept of "specialness" if it leads to rude behavior and an overabundance of sharing? Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine insisted that what Americans needed to learn were manners. He felt that someone with good manners treated people with respect (even if s/he did not feel any for them) thereby insuring that daily interactions would move forward smoothly and without fuss. Perhaps Americans should focus less on "specialness" and more on harmonious living.

Social Networking and the Puritan Work Ethic

Numerous studies have shown that Americans work more hours per week and have fewer vacation hours per year than Europeans. Many Americans (myself included although I have significantly scaled back in the last year) even work on vacation, checking their blackberries and email accounts. We are a nation of workaholics. Our culture seems to have been permanently affected by the work ethics of the Puritans who were among the early European immigrants to our shores.

Social networking ties in beautifully to the Puritan work ethic. When you are twittering or posting on Facebook, you are indeed "working" to develop your social network with people who can be tapped to help further your career. Your posts are a way to contruct your persona for people who may have little face-to-face contact with you, and instead only know what you choose to share in short bursts of information. In Italy, creating a bella figura is done through choice of clothing and accessories. In the US, it is done by tweets. Leisure activities such as going to movies, concerts, reading books and online articles, etc. can be carefully screened before tweeting to make sure that they convey the desired impression. Therefore, even in non-work time, you are working.

The sad part is that many social network posters, as commentors to my previous post have mentioned, post too much. They believe that people do want to read literally everything they do during the course of a day. Unfortunately, everyone's lives are not constantly filled with excitement and the limited amount of space allowed for posts makes it difficult for all but the best writers to make a topic such as flea control (much on my mind lately) fresh and interesting.

A year and a half ago, I spent two weeks in Italy with friends. We noticed that Italians spent very little time on their cell phones. In Venice in particular, people sat on benchs in the campos or stood in the campos chatting with one another. Even in the cafes, no one was on the phone; they did not even appear to be texting one another. They also seemed less tense and stressed than the average New Yorker. Granted that we were there at an off-peak time where the streets were empty of tourists, but we all felt that the lack of cell use was refreshing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Social Networking and Narcissism

Twenge focuses on how narcissism is fueled by social networking. In order to continue to exist, social networking providers must convince people that it is essential that they broadcast their lives and/or ideas 24/7. As Twenge points out, this can be somewhat excessive. The average person's life is just not that fascinating to large numbers of strangers. Also, people develop an inflated sense of self. After reading the book, I set myself up with a facebook account. However, I rarely post since there is nothing about my life that others want or need to hear.

Capitalism Encouraging Narcissism

Chris Maisano made a post on July 5th where he commented that capitalism encouraged narcissism. Never was this comment more apparent than in two of today's local New York papers, who both devoted several pages, complete with color photos, to President Obama's jeans. One of my co-workers, highly confused, asked me why this topic was so important. My response was that it was an attempt to stimulate the economy. New Yorkers, reading these articles, will immediately become self-conscious about their clothing and go shopping to make sure their jeans don't look like those of the president. As a result, the retail sector in NYC will receive a needed boost. This will occur because people are so conditioned to believe media that they feel the need to buy the jeans recommended in the article, in order to feel important rather than victims of the fashion police.

At the same time, the need also ties in with Anonymous' post:

"It is also a safety mechanism in the human brain which keeps us at a safe-distance from "non-look" alikes who used to be predators in the jungle life"

If everyone wears only the types of jeans dictated in the articles, then they will safely blend in with the crowd. Possibly the most critical decision the president will make in the future is whether to accept the societal preoccupation with appearance and buy new clothes.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Culture of Self-Esteem

Twenge and her co-author focus on the relentless indoctrination of Americans with self-esteem. They talk about children singing songs about their uniqueness and specialness in school, and how little girls are encouraged to view themselves as princesses. All this emphasis on specialness causes the kids to feel that they are, indeed, superior to others, and they grow up with a strong sense of narcissism.

This might explain the motivations behind the CEOs who ran their companies into the ground, leaving a jobless and 401K-free workforce while they walked off with millions. It also explained why people in the financial sector bilked thousands and shook up the economy while, once again, walking away with millions. They viewed themselves as special and others as worthless.

Americans are encourage to job-hop. If you are not planning on staying long in a job, you might view your co-workers as temporary acquaintances and useful contacts rather than as a community of like-minded individuals. As organizations become less pyramid-shaped and more diamond-shaped, the competition for the positions at the top of the diamond becomes more fierce because there are fewer top positions. This causes greater competition and more fragmentation among employees.

At the same time, the lifestyles of these who view themselves special are emphasized by the media. In a pre-fragmented American society, people had local role models in their community. However, with frequent moving, Americans no longer have established roots in their local communities. As such, the media provides them with an example of how to live, with an emphasis on extreme consumerism.

Several years ago, PBS ran a series called Pioneer House where several families had to live a pioneer life out west. During the course of a summer, the children in the several pioneer families were called upon to help their families literally survive in the wilderness. One boy, from a wealthy family in the non-Pioneer world, was extremely inventive and came up with novel solutions to his family's problems. A girl had an unusual rapport with animals, which helped with the cows and hens. The children's skills were utilized by the community so that its members would survive but not given overly great emphasis by the parents. After the series ended, its makers went back and interviewed the families. The inventive little boy was interviewed in his family's lavish house. He commented that he missed being a pioneer since he had never been bored, always had something to do, and his family had become quite close. Now that he was back in 20th century America, he filled his empty hours with TV and video games. This lends validity to Chris Maisano's comment.

The decline of the middle class may be feeling the emphasis on specialness and the rise of narcissism. Previous generations knew that they would live as comfortably as their parents, if not better. Now salaries are buying less and less. Young adults graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt which will takes years to pay off. They may never own their own home or be debt-free or have the guarantee of a relatively worry-free retirement. Narcissism could be a way to avoid the uncertainty of their future.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Media, Entitlement, & Narcissism

I was planning to discuss in this next post how I felt that Sex and the City had continued to send Americans further into narcissism. However, this morning I read this article:

Say Hello to Underachieving

Essentially it is how the Millennial Generation is being forced into underachieving because their parents, hit by the recession, cannot bankroll internships at the White House or summers abroad in Europe. In fact, these young adults are being asked by cash-strapped parents to find summer jobs to earn money. The author of the article expresses concerns that the recession will (based on statistics from previous recessions) force the Millennials to underearn for the next 15 years.

My initial reaction was that this was not necessarily negative. Members of the Greatest Generation, which grew up in the recession, served in WWII, and had the highest rate of savings, worked unglamorous summer jobs. My own father, for example, sold ice cream on the summer streets of NYC along with his father. He was able to go on to college and grad school and had a long, successful career as a teacher while still keeping a love of ice cream.Summers spent scooping were not held against him by universities and employers.

Then I remembered that the unemployment rate is still high. Heads of families don't have jobs. Many people are facing layoffs. There is an exceptionally high number of families in NYC shelters and many people are still facing foreclosures. Once again, the media is encouraging narcissism in the young. The article could have asked the Millennials to reflect on how lucky they are to have a job at all, parents to feed and house them, time before they must be self-supporting.

Is the media deliberately trying to promote narcissism in the young?
Is this a refusal on the part of reporters to accept that the economy has changed, and may have done so for good?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Narcissism is caused by the media

Twenge suggests that brainwashing by the media has contributed to much of the narcissism in US culture. In the past, people just envied and competed with their neighbors. With television, they were able to see how people in different classes and different parts of the United States. As a result, people began to deserve the lifestyles and belongings of the extremely wealthy, which they might not have been aware of in pre-television and internet days. Keeping up with the Joneses was taken to an international level.

Twenge blames reality TV shows for the exceleration of this problem in the US. I agree with her but I personally think the problem began back in the late 1980's. Long before reality TV, long before Sex and the City, the baby boomers of America had their reality forever altered by thirtysomething. It not only changed their lives but those of their children, the current Generation Y (or as Twenge calls them, Generation Me.)


Back in the mid-80’s, many baby boomers were fans of the television series thirtysomething. Set in Philadelphia, it was about several yuppies who were adjusting to yuppiedom after spending their college years as flower-children. They lived in large, clean, nicely decorated houses that looked like shoots for an upscale home furnishings catalogs and were stay-at-home moms or artily employed single women depressed over their lack of suitable dating prospects. The men all seemed to make huge amounts of money as lawyers or advertising executives. All the characters spent much time obsessing over every action they took, whether raising their child, working, or the man they broke up with years earlier.

While I found the show depressing, I knew many baby boomers and Gen X'ers who took this show as the model for their life and those of their children. They wanted the lavish house, the life where the main focus was on children (one character quit a part-time job as a fact checker because she was unable to find time to rear her child), the refusal to take politics seriously, the culture where a single woman was pitied and miserable and people who tried to effect social change were ridiculed. I also knew people who took this show as a model in how NOT to live their life, but they were a minority.

The next show to have such a major impact on US life was Sex and the City, which will be considered in my next post.

The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell


Jean Twenge’s previous book was Generation Me, which I read as an attempt to understand the values and psyches of my younger co-workers. I found the book depressing but insightful. As a result, I decided to read her next book, The Narcissism Epidemic, even though I felt the term was heavily overused. Rarely have I had such an extreme reaction to a book. I moved between recognizing societal behaviors that I had noticed but not fully registered to being convinced that I, too, was dangerously narcissistic. Should I take the narcissism test? Would taking the test be a sign of narcissism? Is wanting to affect change a sign of narcissism? I ultimately called a close friend who reminded me that I had a similar crisis after I read The Geography of Bliss and suggested that I read some non-taxing novels for a change.

However, the worsening of the U.S. economy has made it essential that we examine our society. How did the financial crisis begin? What made financial people feel that it was acceptable to let potentially unsound loans to go through? Why did ordinary people borrow widely out of their financial means? Why did no one think that these financial abuses would be destructive? The answers, according to Twenge’s book, lie within the narcissicist values of our culture.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents by Minal Hajratwala

In Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents writer Minal Hajratwala tells the story of several generations of her far-flung family, and in doing so also traces the roots and reasons for diasporic movement. She uses the particulars of her clan's many uprootings and reroutings - from India to Fiji, to South Africa, to Australia, to New Zealand, to the U.K, and to the U.S.A. -- to explore the historical and societal forces that shape migrations. In her writing she manages to convey the results of her meticulous research as well as the more personal stories of her kin, and then, in the penultimate chapter, of her own life story and the metamorphoses she has undergone as an immigrant child of immigrants three times over.

When I first picked up this book, it was with a sense of curiosity, excitement and trepidation. Excitement and curiosity because I was looking forward to learning how a contemporary of mine -- also an immigrant, and, like me, one who has lived most of her years in this country -- would write about the Indian diaspora. Trepidation because when picking up a book that focuses on one's own cultural background, one never knows what to expect. Will it be like looking into a mirror? Like looking into a microscope? Or like looking into the wrong end of a telescope?

What I am most impressed by in
Leaving India is the way that the author picks out the story of not only her immediate family but also of various strands of her clan in a way that provides historical context - rounding out the whys and wherefores of the personal with attention paid to the larger forces that were at work in shaping their lives. The reader is educated as well as entertained -- we learn about overarching immigration/emigration policies and regulations that affected not just one nuclear family but entire communities and generations. One thing that intrigued me when I began to read the book is that Hajratwala chooses to write this strictly as a factual account. In fact, in her introduction she says:

"... the reader should know that this is a work of nonfiction. I have been asked frequently whether I am fictionalizing and the answer is no... The journalist in me is scrupulous about such matters, and no "poetic license" has been taken..."
While I rejoice in the fascinating history lesson that Hajratwala provides about diasporic moves, what I really revel in is the personal detail, that which she is naturally better able to provide for some stories than for others, in her pursuit of pure nonfiction. While I admire and appreciate her decision to just "stick with the facts, m'am," I find myself most drawn to the chapters about her parents and about herself, as these are the most fleshed out with story, which is my true impetus, always, to read. Of course this is a personal preference on my part; I respond more keenly to stories than to facts.

Blog readers, what are your thoughts on the continuum that is the realm of "creative nonfiction"? Is it ever acceptable to fictionalize a memoir in order to tell a more complete story, or must one always obey the dictates of fact and truth? Is there a grey area? I welcome your thoughts on this topic and also on any other thoughts that you have as you read
Leaving India.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Evolving Self by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Every man has a mob self and an individual self, in varying proportions.

~D.H. Lawrence

The words "I am" are potent words; be careful what you hitch them to. The thing you're claiming has a way of reaching back and claiming you.

~A.L. Kitselman

Up to a point a man's life is shaped by environment, heredity, and movements and changes in the world about him. Then there comes a time when it lies within his grasp to shape the clay of his life into the sort of thing he wishes to be. Only the weak blame parents, their race, their times, lack of good fortune, or the quirks of fate. Everyone has it within his power to say, "This I am today; that I will be tomorrow."

~Louis L'Amour

Welcome to Brooklyn Public Library’s online discussion of Csikszentmihalyi’s The Evolving Self. The book is a sequel to the author’s bestselling Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, in which a radical theory of happiness is proposed. After years of systematic, in-depth and cross-cultural research for Flow, Csikszentmihalyi, who is arguably one of the greatest psychologists in the world today, concluded that what makes people truly happy has not much to do with sex, wealth and power, but to be actively involved in a difficult enterprise or an activity which “stretches physical and mental capacities.” In other words, the habit of taking up increasingly complex and new challenges on regular basis, is the key to genuine happiness. Being whole heartedly involved in such activities for some length of time, may then lead to a “rare state of consciousness” which he terms as flow, and suggests that this state can conquer anxieties of everyday life and make life worth living.

But perhaps an unexamined Self is not worth evolving. The variety of definitions and discourses about this thing called Self are as old as the beginnings of time. Human beings have attempted to solve this mystery with innumerable mythologies, vanities, fantasies, superstitions, delusions, religions, arts, philosophies and now sciences.

One wonders, what is so true and so new that Csikszentmihalyi has discovered about the nature of Self, which can stand the test of time and reason across cultures? We shall see.

Please join us for a month long exploration of the old and the new discourse about Self and its evolution, and whether or not such articulations are coherent, and correspond to reality, and lend themselves to sound and valid verification. After all, we have to define Self objectively and collaboratively before we can embark upon its evolution--an evolution which could be meaningful to individual and the collective. But, in an important sense, can human beings face some aspects of their real selves? "Every man has reminiscences," wrote Dostoevsky in Notes from the Underground, "which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind."

But for how long can one be in denial of such darkness inherent in human nature--not only at an individual level but the collective as well. The known record of human history is but a collective biography of humanity. Violent history of the 20th century--which has so much to do with tribal identities--alone should make our species shudder with horror and disbelief about forces (conscious and unconscious) at work in human mind and human cultures. But perhaps the processes of defining, exploring and evaluating the nature of Self might have some far reaching implications, not only for the growth of the individual but also for the future of our species, which currently spends more on weapons than education worldwide.

The stakes are high indeed as the struggle for scarce and strategic resources is going to become more ferocious with unprecedented increase in population and pandemonium on the planet. Can human beings fundamentally change the way they have been thinking, feeling and behaving, parenting, preaching and politicking for millennia? Is propensity for violence and vanity so hard wired in the human brain that common sense, good will, religion and education have repeatedly failed us in every generation? For war and preparation for war have been constants of human history and continue to be so in modernity. Every individual, regardless of what group or nation they belong to, needs to ask this question about the nature and evolution of Self and take full responsibility for evolving its highest potentials. For it is not impossibilities which cause us the deepest despair, but potentialities that we have failed to realize. As an Indian proverb has it: “There is nothing noble about being superior to some other person. The true nobility is in being superior to your own previous self.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Darker Domain

What would you do to save the life of a child? How far into the past are you willing to explore to give your child a future? Michelle Gibson formally Michelle Prentice aka Misha, is about to take that journey and in doing so opens Pandora's box.

Have you ever looked into the past and wished that you did not? Or did your look lead to discoveries that were beneficial?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Doug Henwood on the crisis and The Shock Doctrine

Last week, the New Utrecht branch of the Brooklyn Public Library hosted a talk on the economic crisis and possible ways out of it by the economist and writer Doug Henwood. Here's part one of his remarks:

And here's part two:

Henwood has also written a penetrating critique of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine which points out its flaws from a left-wing point of view. I highly recommend that you check it out and let us know what you think in the comments.

Henwood edits Left Business Observer and is a contributing editor of The Nation. His books Wall Street and After the New Economy are both available through the BPL catalog.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (updated with video!)

For the better part of the last decade, Naomi Klein has been one of the most prominent spokespersons of a global movement dedicated to fighting against what it sees as the depredations of global capitalism. Her first book, No Logo, was fortuitously published just after the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and became something of a bible among so-called "anti-globalization" activists. Since then, she has chronicled economic collapse and workers' movements in Argentina, the attempts of the United States to reorganize Iraq as a model of "free-market" economics, and the Bush administration's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. In late 2007, she published The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, in which she attempts to fit these and other events into a broader analysis of the development of global capitalism since the 1970s.

Since the 1970s the nature of global capitalism has changed dramatically. From the end of World War II until roughly 1973, the liberal/social democratic welfare state was the reigning economic and political arrangement of the advanced capitalist West, and government-led developmentalism predominated in formerly colonial lands in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. However, since the 1970s, conservative free-market approaches to economics and politics have largely prevailed around the world, as embodied by figures like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and the late economist Milton Friedman. How did this happen? In The Shock Doctrine, Klein argues that this transition did not take place democratically, but rather through the exploitation of "disaster-shocked people and countries." It's worth quoting at length from Klein's website in order to understand the main thrust of her argument:

"At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq’s civil war, a new law is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP to claim the country’s vast oil reserves…. Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly out-sources the running of the “War on Terror” to Halliburton and Blackwater…. After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts.... New Orleans’s residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be reopened…. These events are examples of “the shock doctrine”: using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters -- to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy. Sometimes, when the first two shocks don’t succeed in wiping out resistance, a third shock is employed: the electrode in the prison cell or the Taser gun on the streets. "

Klein also collaborated with noted Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron to produce a rather stylish short film to promote the book and popularize its thesis. Take a look:

To get this discussion started, I'd like to pose a few questions:

- Is it accurate to argue that conservative, free-market economics was simply imposed on people and countries by corporate and political elites without democratic consent? Is Klein advancing a conspiracy theory rather than a rigorous historical and theoretical analysis?

- Does Klein stretch her concept of "shock therapy" too far to fit certain events and historical processes into her argument? Does the exploitation of "shock and awe" always work, as she seems to imply, or is it sometimes unsuccessful?

- How has the economic crisis affected the validity of Klein's argument (if at all)? Is the Reagan era really over with the election of Barack Obama, as many have claimed, and is there a possibility of "shock therapy" being used in the service of more liberal/social democratic approaches to political and economic policy?

Feel free to comment on any other aspect of the book you'd like to as well. I'm looking forward to a great discussion with all of you!

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is an American author, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She has written some of the acclaimed American novels including The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Soloman. In her writing, she traverses the experience and roles of black women in a racist and sexist society. In A Mercy, her latest work, Morrison uses her storytelling to transports readers back to a time (1680s) in America when religion, class differences, prejudice and oppression were as familiar as American apple pie. That was a time in American history when the seeds of slavery and racism began to take root.

The novel centers around the decision of Jacob, an Anglo Dutch trader, who despite his revulsion to the business of slavery, accepts a young slave girl as payment on a debt. The decision to take Florens, the young slave girl "with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady" impacts the lives of other women living on Jacob's farm. There is Rebekka, Jacob's wife, who questions her God as she loses one baby after another to the harsh realities of the New World. A Native servant, Lina, a survivor of smallpox epidemic, who hungers for Florens's love to replace the family taken from her. And then there is Sorrow, a quiet black woman, who is a survivor of a terrible incident on a slave ship.

Use the following discussion questions to participate in our discussion:

Do you think Florens' mother showed her mercy by begging Jacob to take Florens?

How did the different viewpoints enhance the story?

Why do you think Rebekka started treating Lina and others badly after her illness passed?

What acts of mercy do the characters display?

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga - wrapping up

Happy Groundhog Day, folks!

Just wanted to wrap up the White Tiger discussion. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I also wanted to share a few last thoughts before we start the next book:-

To Anonymous from January 24, 2009 (1:57):

Yes, I agree, fanatics are fanatics, no matter the country or creed. Although I don't believe that fanaticism as such was really a theme in the book. While there is that incident where Balram blackmails the other driver by threatening to reveal to his employer that the driver is Muslim, this was done for sheer economic and personal gain and not out of a sense of fanatic religious belief. In fact, right after this incident is a poignant moment where Balram experiences a brief pang of regret, which he then steels himself against, brilliantly showing Adiga's delight in exposing the very human quality of ambivalence, even in the face of fighting for survival.

To Preston:

You say:

I am always suspicious of the notion that certain elements of the reality of India are not appropriate for Western audiences. The unpleasantness is thought either to be too embarrassing or to be simply pandering to stereotypes or outdated notions.
I completely agree with you on the above, except for the "pandering to stereotypes" part, where my agreement is qualified by the fact that I do believe that many members of Western audiences (though not all) are only too ready to consume books and films which portray the dirtiness and poverty of the "east" in an imbalanced way. Perhaps it reinforces an inherent sense of superiority, the modern day version of the White Man's Burden? This is not to say that I think that either The White Tiger or Slumdog Millionaire are pandering to this perspective. But I can see how Indians in India would be touchy about such topics... If one has been stereotyped in a certain way for what seems to be eons, then one would have a propensity for kneejerk rejecting of such perceived slights, no? (Not that this tendency is justified, but it's good to understand where such reactions are coming from.)

I do think that much (though certainly not all) of the negative reaction from the Indian press about both The White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire comes from a sense of this kneejerk reaction mixed with a sense of (dare I say it?) sour grapes. Both works, though not perfect by any means, are powerful in their own right, but it is, I believe, their sheer success in the West that has drawn the ire of many an Indian blogger/movie star/critic etc... And, for interested readers, I should point out that Slumdog Millionaire the film was based on a book first published in 2005, which is available at Brooklyn Public Library for your reading pleasure.

But in the end I could not agree with you more when you said:

But India is too big, too old, and too complicated for any single work, even a lifetime of work, to chronicle the range of its vitality and degradation.
And with that, blog readers, our official discussion of The White Tiger is ended. However, should you like to write further comments that elucidate our understanding of the book, they will continue to be welcomed - and appreciated.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Further reflection on Aravind Adiga's Booker-winning The White Tiger

Dear Blog Readers,

Thank you for an energetic and thoughtful discussion in the comments to the initial blog post for The White Tiger!

One of our anonymous commenters (from January 14, 2009, 2:41 PM) asked, “How do you interpret modern day India and its disparities? Just curious.” While I have no ultimate be-all and end-all answer to this question, I must say this: India is a complicated, multifarious, contradictory society. For everything which is true, there is another thing that proves it to be untrue. Caste and class prejudice exist for some, not for others. Some are able to climb out of poverty; others are forever crushed by it. Some cannot imagine an Indian who is uneducated. Others dream of being able to go to school. Some see India as the greatest, largest democracy alive (in terms of sheer population numbers) while others find that Indian society beats down those who are already beaten down. When asked for my own opinion on all of this, I tend to become inarticulate, as the tension of all of these contradictions play within me and ultimately silence me. What is there to say? There is everything to say and nothing to say, at the same time.

As an immigrant from India, albeit one who arrived in this country as a child, I have always struggled when asked to explain, define, or categorize my country of origin. Is India wealthy or poor? How wealthy? How poor? Or, now, newly middle? Do people still believe in and act on caste-ist philosophies, or did that all die with Independence and is the modern era now upon us? Do people in India know how to speak English? Doesn’t everyone in India know how to speak English? These are just some of the questions that make me rub the back of my neck unhappily as I ponder whether to give the 15 second wrong-but-easy pat answer or the 45-minute ponderous, questioning lecture that would leave both me and the questioner querulous and glazed, with no satisfaction that the question had been answered at all.

I do think that The White Tiger, despite being uneven in places, gives one a glimpse into the simultaneously wonderful and terrible place that India can be for her own people. Personally I am unsure whether this book was better in literary quality than, say, Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, which was a much more in-depth, rich exploration of a portion of Indian history which shaped the world. But I think that The White Tiger won the Booker because it is of the moment. It captures the essence of the current economic prosperity and struggle happening on a daily basis all over India, in homes of the rich, the poor, and the middle class.

While there are moments where Balram's character rings a false note, where his or his family's actions seem just amalgams of what the author thinks the poorer classes are thinking, there are many moments when his humanity shines through. And some would argue that it doesn't matter if Balram rings true as a real person or not, that he is a device used by Adiga to get across the sheer horror of class difference in India. And for that achievement, I agree, as do many of the commenters to the first post, that Adiga must be applauded.

I must confess though, that as a person of Indian heritage I have mixed feelings about how this book may be taken by a western audience. Of late the whole India Shining ideology coming full-force from the elite classes of India has been overpowering any other vision of India, making many middle class or privileged class Indians unwilling to admit any other reality coexisting with theirs. In my opinion this book strikes a welcome blow to that monolithic way of looking at India's present and future destiny, shaking the reader awake to the sordid reality of inequality that hasn't disappeared with the rise of the much vaunted "shining" middle class. And yet on the other hand, in purporting to reveal the underbelly of India is this book doing anything other than supporting the traditional western stereotypes of India as a dirty, poor, chaotic place?

Here is a link to a review written by Amitava Kumar, a diasporic writer of Indian origin, which corroborates this sentiment that the book plays to western stereotypes of India. In fact, in a recent conversation, another English professor friend of mine stated that even though the book intends to be controversial, it may actually be simply dovetailing with what folks already believe about India. And, perhaps, with what they feel comfortable believing in. I'd be interested in hearing from readers of this blog. What is your take on this perspective?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

When I first saw the shortlist for the Booker Prize, back in September of 2008, I was surprised to see a South Asian name there which I did not immediately recognize—Aravind Adiga—which made me curious. Just who is this guy with the Indian name, I thought to myself. As a librarian of South Asian heritage I should really know these things. So I did some research and found out that his background is in financial journalism and in working as a South Asia correspondent for TIME magazine. The White Tiger is his first novel.

At the time I thought, Oh, he's such a newbie to literary fiction. There is no way he is going to get the prize when he's up against such prolific and well-established writers as
Sebastian Barry and Amitav Ghosh. But, hmm, a new South Asian writer was now on my radar, and, so, out of sheer curiosity, I put the book on my reserve list on the Brooklyn Public Library catalog.

When I received the book and started to eagerly read, I ran into a strange roadblock. The book has an unusual structure that was (for me) difficult to get attuned to. It is written as a kind of series of oral letters (a spoken-out-loud blog, perhaps?) made by Balram Halwai, the protagonist, to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China. While I found this "frame tale" somewhat off-putting and artificial, there was enough of a spark in the insistent voice of the main character, charmingly vulgar and yet elusive, that kept me going. And I am glad that I did, as it quite soon grabbed me by the throat until I read it all the way through.

I should reveal that I recently traveled back to India, just this past summer, so I had fresh memories of visiting disparate places: friends' homes where servants were not treated poorly, but definitely were part of the "conveniences of modern living" as well as urban slums where whole families were living in rooms a fraction of the size of the guest room at my friends' place. If I had to put the memories into one word, that word would be "guilt." Therefore this book, written from the perspective of someone rising up from what he calls "the Darkness" to become a servant-chauffeur of an incredibly rich and thoughtless family, and to later become an entrepreneur in his own right—albeit through extremely shady means—well, you can see why this story would grip me.

So, fellow readers, I have given you my initial response to the book, but I am curious to hear about your response. Do share with us in the comments below, and our conversation will be under way. Feel free to respond to any aspect of the book that struck you, but, if you are looking for some inspiration, here are some questions I am curious about:

Much has been made of the fact that author Aravind Adiga, although coming from a privileged class himself, has written this book from the perspective of someone from the poorest class within India. Arguments have been made regarding how authentic is the voice of Balram Halwai. When you read this book, did knowing (or not knowing) Adiga's background make you perceive the writing from a different stance? How relevant is his background to your understanding of the book?

In one interview, Adiga went to some pains to state, "I hope it's clear that I am not the narrator." What are your thoughts on the reliability of the narrator? Is he someone you implicitly believe? If not, how do you sift his statements?

Class is a key issue in this book, as it exposes the dramatic difference in the lives of the rich and the "half-baked people," as Balram refers to himself and others from disadvantaged backgrounds. How are class differences presented in the book? How aware or unaware are the various characters of the economic and social forces that affect their lives? And is there an inherent contradiction in an uneducated narrator poinpointing the injustices and inequalities that affect his life?

I'm also curious to know, blog readers, what you thought of the book's "open letter to Wen Jiabao" frame tale structure or how this worked for you (or didn't).

That's it for this post then; looking forward to your responses and to an enjoyable discussion about this fascinating novel!