Rabbit Holes 🕳 #33
From irritation as a tool to quantitative aesthetics, food diversity, the resurgence of unions and re-mapping our worldview
Rabbit Holes 🕳
As always, here are five perspective-shifting ideas that I’ve come across lately, plus some fun extras. Enjoy, and don’t forget that you can now support my work by ☕️ Buying Me A Coffee:
#1 😒 Irritation As A Tool
Why don’t we transform ourselves, and the world, more disruptively? Maybe it’s because many of us, despite living in a world of permacrisis, merely feel irritated. Anger makes us do something, or at least lets us break open and express our emotions. Irritation, on the other hand, is unfocused and just annoying, “a feeling that’s expressed only through being inadequately expressed.” But what if irritation is more useful than we think?
“Unlike anger, irritation has neither glamour nor radicalism on its side. Yet it might just be the mood we need right now.”
“The everyday experience of irritation conceals a paradox. When one is suitably attuned, virtually anything is liable to provoke it: a telephone left to ring or a phone call taken, people who walk too slowly or drive too quickly. Running late is irritating but so is arriving early. Impudence is irritating but obsequiousness even more so. Yet, however various its incitements, irritation is also an empty and tautological feeling. The irate know their claims against the world to be baseless or at least wildly exaggerated, and this, too, annoys them.”
“Something about this ordinary, negligible feeling seems to make it inaccessible to critical reflection. Perhaps because, when irritable, we tend to be at our least reflective – preoccupied with those diminutive miseries whose oversize effect we know would not stand up to criticism.”
“For Aristotle, irritation was closely related to anger. You might say that irritation is anger’s meaner little sibling – what, in Ugly Feelings (2007), the scholar Sianne Ngai calls ‘inadequate’ anger. One loses oneself in a rage – that is one of anger’s seductions: it offers a holiday from the self, that licenses acts ordinarily proscribed. […] Communicated by huffs and sighs but rarely through more drastic measures, irritation is a feeling that’s expressed only through being inadequately expressed. One is not moved to commit appalling acts due to irritation.”
“Indeed, there seems to be nothing one can do with one’s irritation; and the usual solutions – breathe, count to 10, relax – have the unfortunate quality of being themselves very irritating. It is this ongoing and helpless quality that makes irritation so frustrating. […] Where public anger can forge solidarity and social change, irritation seems unable to make the move from the individual body to the body politic.”
“Might it be that our superficial, free-floating experiences of irritation provide a special form of insight, a kind of (Heideggerian) environmental awareness? In Cruel Optimism (2011), the scholar Lauren Berlant argued that the contemporary world is beset by harms that tend to manifest not as discrete events but in the ongoing, managed and complexly mediated forms of ‘crisis ordinariness’.”
Might irritation become a politicised affect in an age of climate emergency – an age when a sense of crisis permeates the very atmosphere but, across much of the world, generally fails to make itself concretely apparent?
When something – everything – is clearly wrong and yet nothing quite interrupts the steady flow of ordinariness?
Perhaps irritation – hazy and unfocused – invites us to think about the atmospheric, overdetermined and interconnected nature of contemporary political harms, and of the psychic and somatic costs exacted by living under such conditions.”
“Staying with one’s irritation […] and accepting that one does not always know why one feels how one feels, might present us with the possibility of learning to tell new stories about the world, and about ourselves.”
#2 🔢 Quantitative Aesthetics
By giving numbers so much weight and importance, what aspects of life, what elements of inquiry are we ignoring? And how can we create new frameworks that help us re-focus on what has been ignored as a result of our stats-fetish?
“Between 2011 to 2020, not just literature but almost everything humanities-related is down by double-digit percentages. The corresponding growth of the S.T.E.M. fields was even more pronounced. Most dramatically, “computer and information technology” more than doubled its share of degrees.”
“What’s going on? We’re talking about the period since 2011, the first college class since the introduction of the iPhone, and it is logical that mass adoption of such seductive and pervasive consumer technology has changed people’s relationship to culture. But 2011-12 is also the first full college class since the financial crisis of 2008, and the other obvious culprit is the greater ruthlessness of the economy post-Great Recession, the flight away from the “softness” of the humanities in a time when studying anything not directly seen as useful is viewed more and more as an unsustainable luxury.”
“[…] as the balance between the humanities and the sciences has shifted, the ‘language of statistics’ has more clearly cemented itself as the default code for being a serious person.”
“As one student says in the article, “Even if I’m in the humanities, and giving my impression of something, somebody might point out to me, ‘Well, who was your sample?’ I mean, statistics is everywhere. […] Which, in some ways, is for the good. There are real benefits to asking, “who’s your sample?” If you looked at art auction prices, you’d think that one set of artists are the most influential in the world. But if you try, by contrast, to count which artists appear the most in biennials, you get a different set of artists, representing different values.”
“Nevertheless, there’s something called the McNamara Fallacy, a.k.a. the Quantitative Fallacy. It is summarized as “if it cannot be measured, it is not important.” The Heller article made me reflect on how a version of it is now very present, and growing, at the grassroots of taste. On one level, this is seen in a rise of a kind of wonky obsession with business stats in fandoms, invoked as a way to convey the rightness of artistic opinions—what I want to call Quantitative Aesthetics.”
“It manifests in music. As the New York Times wrote in 2020 of the new age of pop fandom, “devotees compare No. 1s and streaming statistics like sports fans do batting averages, championship, wins and shooting percentages.” […] The same goes for film lovers, who now seem to strangely know a lot about opening-day grosses and foreign box office, and use the stats to argue for the merits of their preferred product. […] indie director James Gray, of Ad Astra fame, recently complained about ordinary cinema-goers using business stats as a proxy for artistic merit: ‘It tells you something of how indoctrinated we are with capitalism that somebody will say, like, ‘His movies haven’t made a dime!’ It’s like, well, do you own stock in Comcast? Or are you just such a lemming that you think that actually has value to anybody?’”
“But where Quantitative Aesthetics is really newly intense across society—in art and everywhere—is in how social-media numbers (clicks, likes, shares, retweets, etc.) seep into everything as a shorthand for understanding status. That’s why artist-researcher Ben Grosser created his Demetricator suite of web-browsing tools, which let you view social media stripped of all those numbers and feel, by their absence, the effect they are having on your attention and values.
“Visible metrics don’t just draw our attention, but I argue that we are compelled by this deeply ingrained desire for more—a desire to make them larger simply because we can see them—based in an evolutionarily developed need for esteem,” Grosser told Slate. “It intersects with capitalism in the way that capitalism treats value as a quantifiable thing, and there’s this endless need for growth.”
» artnet news | How We Ended Up in the Era of ‘Quantitative Aesthetics,’ Where Data Points Dictate Taste by Ben Davis
#3 🍌 Losing Our Food Diversity & Resilience
This extremely interesting deep dive into food diversity and resilience by The Guardian highlights very well the consequences and problems of mass scaling, globalization and homogeneity. The good news is that people are becoming increasingly aware of these fragile and unhealthy system.
“All our food systems – agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture – are buckling under the stress of rising temperatures, wildfires, droughts, and floods.
Even in the best-case scenario, global heating is expected to make the earth less suitable for the crops that provide most of our calories. If no action is taken to curtail the climate crisis, crop losses will be devastating.”
“Nature has a simple way to adapt to different climates: genetic diversity.
Even if some plants react poorly to higher temperatures or less rainfall, other varieties can not only survive – but thrive, giving humans more options on what to grow and eat.”
“But the powerful food industry had other ideas and over the past century, humans have increasingly relied on fewer and fewer crop varieties that can be mass produced and shipped around the world. “The line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and thinner and the public is unaware and unconcerned,” writes Dan Saladino in his book Eating to Extinction.”
“Maize or corn is now grown in greater volume than any crop in history, and is still the staple food for about 1.2 billion people in Latin America, the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa. But the maize most of us eat today is quite different from what our ancestors consumed.
Maize spread around the world because of its ability to evolve and adapt to different climates, altitudes and day lengths. Left to mother nature in an open field, diversity flourishes as wind carries pollen from one plant to a female flower of another plant, creating a slightly different maize baby every time. […] From there, farmers would save and replant the seeds of the best plants – the hardiest, tastiest, and easiest to harvest – to create locally adapted varieties, which are called landraces or heirlooms. By the early 20th century, there were thousands of distinct landraces being cultivated from Canada to Chile, each one adapted to the local ecosystem with its own good and bad quirks.”
“This story is true for most of our staple crops.
For thousands of years, families and communities relied on these local landraces which over time had developed helpful traits for their particular ecosystems. […] Different crops like maize, beans and squashes were planted in the same field to help control pests, fertilize the soil and provide a nutritionally balanced diet.”
“For maize, this changed radically around the 1920s, after scientists discovered they could take a landrace and self-pollinate the plant, creating a genetically identical inbred, and if they did this several times its characteristics would change – perhaps the plant would be taller or have a big ear of corn. These inbreds were then crossed with each other, again and again, to create hybrids.”
“As a result we lost countless varieties of grains, fruits, vegetables and spices better equipped – thanks to their genetic makeup which evolved over generations – to withstand certain pathogens, drought, heat, and humidity.”
» The Guardian | Our food system isn't ready for the climate crisis by Nina Lakhani, Alvin Chang, Rita Liu, and Andrew Witherspoon
#4 ✊ The Resurgence & Potential of Unions
I feel like unions are becoming an increasingly important puzzle piece to solve a variety of urgent problems. However, they need a new brand, a new story that’s more in tune with younger generations’ values and work reality.
“‘Unions are the best tools or vehicles ordinary people have for achieving any kind of social justice or tackling any kind of inequality,’ Livingston [, author of the new book Make Bosses Pay: Why We Need Unions,] explains. ‘They’re a mechanism for moving the dial in society at large. It might seem like unions are a niche topic, but I actually think they’re central to the conversations we’re having about equality and social justice and how we want society to look like.’”
Livingston: “When unions were first built, they were built on the model of a white male breadwinner: men going off to work in manual industries and earning enough money to look after their whole family. That’s a generalisation, of course, because there have always been working-class women who have worked, but certainly unions were built on that understanding that collective bargaining was to secure men a family wage. I think unions have long recognised that that can’t be the model anymore – but I think they’re still in a state of transition to something that encompasses more liberatory politics.”
“We have it in our heads that HR is there for us; they’re your champions in the workplace. But when you start to think about what their actual role is, it’s not even hidden, it’s on the surface – their name is ‘Human Resources’ – so it’s about you, as a resource, for the organisation you’re working for. HR exists to utilise workers in a way that meets the organisations’ strategic aims. To me, that’s always going to be in conflict with the interests of workers.”
“There is a huge conversation happening around work and young people’s dissatisfaction around capitalist work. You see things like burnout in headlines, and issues like the Me Too scandal which was, at its core, about working conditions and women facing sexual harassment in the workplace. […] So you get books about how to cope at work and be productive and Instagram influencers posting graphics about how to negotiate with your boss, but they never talk about trade unions or collective action. To me, collective action is the only counter to the power of your boss and capitalist work.”
“I think there are reasons to be optimistic, not just in terms of the union increase we’ve seen during the pandemic, but also because there are these great case studies of the existing union movements doing this work already. If you believe it’s powerful for people to come together and make a commitment to each other and speak as one voice, you can’t really be pessimistic – it’s just a big challenge! But if the work gets done, the potential is huge.”
#5 🗺️ Re-Mapping Our Worldview
A fun one! By now, it’s common knowledge that the usual world maps are biased, showing us a westernized or europanized view of the world. The curation below, however, gave me some new aha moments and perspective shifts. Have a look:
“Maps twist our perception of the world.
Countries closer to the equator—which happen to be poorer—seem smaller than they are.”
“This is because the world is a 3D sphere, but maps are 2D projections on a plane. That means distortion!”
“We should be wary of flattening balls!”
“The biggest loser is Africa, which is humongous:
“If you compare the most affected regions, you realize that Africa is about as wide as Russia!”
”The island of New Guinea, which appears to be about the size of Great Britain, reaches in fact from London to Moscow.”
“So the Mercator projection clearly distorts our perception of the world. But it’s not the only way it’s distorted.
“Conversely, if you center the map around Alaska, you can see why it has the 3rd biggest airport in the world in terms of cargo: it’s the most central point to all the big markets in the northern hemisphere.”
“These projections make us miss lots of quite striking relations between regions. For example:”
“Brazil is brutally big. Its northernmost point is closer to Canada than to its southernmost point! In fact, its northernmost point is closer to any American country than to its southernmost point! It’s so big that its easternmost point is much closer to Africa than to its westernmost point.”
“Here’s one that broke my head: China’s westernmost point is closer to Germany than to its easternmost point!”
Special edition of the Green European Journal with amazing articles by the smartest de- and post-growth thinkers: Imagining Europe Beyond Growth
Detailed, clear descriptions of 15 green skills for a green economy
Great children’s book: The car that wanted to be a bike by Lior Steinberg
🚿 Shower Thoughts
That’s it for this week! Thanks so much for making it to the end. If you want to support me and help me invest more time and energy into this newsletter, consider ☕️ Buying Me A Coffee.