From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (21)—Bad Boy

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party

Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
[a] Bad boy (and horse)  RF
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
George Costanza has been many things in his fictional, Seinfeldian life, and many of them might carry the adjective "bad" along with them. As Jerry notes, below, George has been the bad son, the bad credit risk, the bad friend...the bad tipper. What he has never been—and you can see the glimmers of anticipation in his eyes as he considers it—is the bad boy.

Take a look at these snippets from the "Bootleg" episode that we considered a few weeks ago, and ponder how "badness" plays its way through the confusing nets of culture and social psychology. George has played marine biologist. Now it is time to be bad.

It should be quite obvious that George is working quite hard at "being" bad. This is no more natural or unnatural to him than a new dance step. He is (as Pierre Bourdieu and other thinkers have noted) feeling his way around his society and culture and etching new (and in this case very odd) patterns of action. In fact, he works so hard at it that (allegedly) he needs an orthopedic back rest. His wink and snap of the fingers as his admirer leaves is priceless.

Seinfeld's brilliance is that it "gets" the complexities of social psychology, and George flows into his new role with all of the skill (or lack of it) that he can muster.

This week's "theoretical" readings pick up right from here. In our intellectually stunted popular culture, we are prone to think of people (boys like George) as
being good, bad, or something else. We know better in practice, but we often talk about people as though they walked around with an inner behavioral mechanism that determines "who they are." This is the worst kind of nonsense, and it has led to misinterpretations of history, culture, politics, and religion.

We talk (all too routinely, to this day) about presidents, ministers, teachers, students, athletes, and executives as though they "are" this or that thing, this or that way. If the consequences weren't so great, it might be harmless, but it has led to overly psychological interpretations of policy matters (we are seeing it in the United States on left and right almost as I write this), charitable enterprises, and sporting events. 

The most interesting thing, though, is that those who attack (as I do) such pseudo-psychologizing nonsense cannot be pegged easily as "conservative" or "liberal." It seems that shallow thinking cuts across the ideological lines just as effectively as more reasoned analysis does. In the readings below (the first of which is "theoretical" in only the loosest sense), I quote an array of writers from all across the spectrum. Even so, the readings this week are meant to juxtapose the "bad boy" episode with new ideas about how we think and behave.

Stephen R. Covey
The Social Mirror
[b] Character(s)
If the only vision we have of ourselves comes from the social mirror—from the current social paradigm and from the opinions, perceptions, and paradigms of the people around us—our view of ourselves is like the reflection in the crazy mirror room at the carnival.
          "You're never on time."
          "Why can't you ever keep things in order?"
          "You must be an artist!"
          "I can't believe you won!"
          "This is so simple. Why can't you understand?"
These visions are disjointed and out of proportion. They are often more projections than reflections, projecting the concerns and character weaknesses of people giving the input rather than accurately reflecting what we are. The reflection of the current social paradigm tells us we are largely determined by conditioning and conditions. While we have acknowledged the tremendous power of conditioning in our lives, to say that we are determined by it, that we have no control over that influence, creates quite a different map.

There are actually three social maps—three theories of determinism widely accepted, independently or in combination, to explain the nature of man. Genetic determinism basically says your grandparents did it to you . That's why you have such a temper. Your grandparents had short tempers and it's in your DNA. It just goes through the generations and you inherited it. In addition, you're Irish, and that's the nature of the Irish people

Psychic determinism basically says your parents did it to you. Your upbringing, your childhood experience essentially laid out your personal tendencies and your character structure. That's why you're afraid to be in front of a group. It's the way your parents brought you up. You feel terribly guilty if you make a mistake because you "remember" deep inside the emotional scripting when you were very vulnerable and tender and dependent. You "remember" the emotional punishment, the rejection, the comparison with somebody else when you didn't perform as well as expected.

Environmental determinism basically says your boss is doing it to you—or your spouse, or that bratty teenager, or your economic situation, or national policies. Someone or something in your environment is responsible for your situation. 

Each of the maps is based on the stimulus/response theory we most often think of in connection with Pavlov's experiments with dogs...[1]

Alasdair Macintyre
Vulnerability, Flourishing, Goods, and 'Good'
[c] Good(s)
If we are to understand how this use of 'good' related to other uses, we need first of all to consider three distinct ways in which we ascribe goodness. We may assert some type of foot that it would be food for you to eat, meaning that it would be good for you to eat it qua human being—anyone's health would benefit from eating it or anyone would enjoy eating it. But we may make the same assertion, meaning that it would be good for you to eat qua athlete about to undertake a marathon or qua recovering invalid. Good is ascribed, that is, both to what benefits human beings as such and to what benefits human beings in particular roles within particular contexts of practice. A good human being is one who benefits her or himself and others (much more will of course need to be said about this) both qua human being and also characteristically qua the exemplary discharge of particular roles or functions within the context of particular kinds of practice, as someone may benefit her or himself and others both qua conscientious and cheerful human being and qua shepherd or nurse.

Contrast with 'good human being' and 'good shepherd' 'good thief.' Someone can be a good shepherd without being a good human being, but the goods of sheep farming are genuine goods. To be a good thief however is to be a bad human being. In calling someone a good thief we appraise her or his skills. But even if we judge, as we should, that it may be good to possess these skills, we are not at all committed to asserting that it is good to put them to the use to which the thief puts them. This suggests at least a three-fold classification of ascriptions of good.

There are first of all those ascriptions of good by which we evaluate something only as a means. To possess certain skills, to be afforded certain opportunities, to be at certain places at certain times is a good, if and insofar as it enables one to be or do or have some further good. These things are good only qua means to something further that is itself good. Consider now a second type of ascription of goodness. To judge someone good in some role or at discharging some function within some socially established practice is to judge that agent good insofar as there are goods internal to that activity that are genuine goods, goods that are to be valued as ends worth pursuing for their own sake, if they are to be pursued at all. Whether there are and what they are is characteristically and generally something to be learned only by being initiated into this or that particular activity. To be excellent in achieving the goods of this or that particular practice is to be good qua member of a fishing crew or qua mother of a family or qua chess player or soccer player. It is to value and to make available goods that are worthwhile for their own sake. Yet for each individual there is the question of whether it is good for her or him that the goods of this or that particular practice should have this or that place in her or his life. And for every society there is the question of whether it is good for that society that the goods of this or that particular practice should have this or that place in its common life. So we need to make a third type of judgment.

It may well be best for me and for others that some set of goods—genuine goods—should have a subordinate place at all in my particular life. Gaugin faced the question of what place the foods of painting have in his life. It may have been best for Gaugin qua painter that he went to Tahiti. If it was, it does not follow that it was best for Gaugin qua human being or best for him qua father. We therefore need to distinguish between what it is that makes certain goods goods and goods to be valued for their own sake from what it is that makes it good for this particular individual or this particular society in this particular situation to make them objects of her or his or their effective practical regard. And our judgments about how it is best for an individual or a community to order the goods in their lives exemplify this third type of ascription, one whereby we judge unconditionally about what it is best for individuals or groups to be or do or have not only qua agents engaged in this or that form of activity in this or that role or roles, but also qua human beings. It is these judgments that are judgments about human flourishing.[2]

Paul Ricoeur

The Self and Narrative Identity
[d] Other(s)
The mediating function performed by the narrative identity of the character between the poles of sameness and selfhood is attested primarily by the imaginative variations to which the narrative submits this identity. In truth, the narrative does not merely tolerate these variations, it engenders them, seeks them out. In this sense, literature proves to consist in a vast laboratory for thought experiments in which the resources of variation encompassed by narrative identity are put to the test of narration. The benefit of the thought experiments lies in the fact that they make the difference between the two meanings of permanence in time evident, by varying the relation between them. In everyday experience, as we have said, these meanings tend to overlap and to merge with one another; in this way, counting on someone is both relying on the stability of a character and expecting that the other will keep his or her word, regardless of the changes that may affect the dispositions by which that person is recognized. In literary fiction, the space of variation open to the relations between these two modalities of identity is vast. At one end, the character in the story has a definite character, which is identifiable and reidentifiable as the same: this may well be the status of the characters in fairy tales in our folklore.

The classic novel—from La Princesse de Clèves or the eighteenth century English novel to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy—can be said to have explored the intermediary space of variations, where, through transformations of the character, the identification of the same decreases without disappearing entirely. We approach the opposite pole with the so-called novel of apprenticeship and move even closer with the stream-of-consciousness novel. The relation between the plot and the character appears to be inverted here: just the opposite of the Aristotelian model, the plot is placed in the service of the character. It is here that the identity of the character, escaping the control of the plot and of its ordering principle, is truly put to the test. We thus reach an extreme pole of variation where the character in the story ceases to have a definite character. It is at this pole that we encounter limiting cases in which literary fiction lends itself to a confrontation with the puzzling cases of analytic philosophy. The conflict between a narrativist version and a nonnarrativist version of personal identity will culminate in this confrontation.[3]

[1] Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Fireside Books, 1989), 67-68.
[2] Alasdair Macintyre, Dependent Rational Animals (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1999), 65-67.
[3] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 148-149.

Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Fireside Books, 1989.
Macintyre, Alasdair. Dependent Rational Animals. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1999.
Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another [Translated by Kathleen Blamey]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Wednesday, August 24th 
It's Not You; It's Me
Someone uses a familiar line on George...and the theoretical possibilities are endless.

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