poverty

Lucky beggars

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So a Chinese multimillionaire invited “1000 poor and destitute Americans” to lunch in Central Park with the promise that each would receive 300 dollars. Far short of the 1000 invited actually made it into the event venue: an estimated 200-250 were at the lunch (with many more in line left outside), and, surprise, nobody received a dime.

Chinese millionaire Chen Guangbiao performs magic tricks during a lunch he sponsored for hundreds of needy New Yorkers at Loeb Boathouse in New York's Central Park

Mr. Chen performing magic tricks for the audience in Central Park. (“Surprise! There’s nothing there!” [source])

The multimillionaire in question, Chen Guangbiao, introduced plans for this “charity luncheon” by running a full-page ad in the June 16 New York Times (below). The invitation was issued to the “poor and destitute” — a phrase that seems tautologous until one remembers the distinction, once in regular use and made popular by Jeremy Bentham, between the indigent and the “merely” poor. Chen wanted his philanthropy to reach only the most bad off, those who had nothing — as opposed to, say, the single working mother. (The article about the luncheon episode that ran in the Times this week does not link to the original advertisement.)

Chen ad NYT June 16 2014

Who could not have foreseen that this ill-conceived and thoughtlessly executed scheme would be a flop? One vexing and as far as I know under-reported aspect of this stunt is how the Times in effect gained twice from this situation: once in running the ad of a clown or madman or both, and a second time in covering his antics.

In any event the number of major news outlets covering the luncheon, microphones and cameras at the ready, suggest that Chen’s exercise in philanthropic self-promotion could have been served without paying a cent. What were all the reporters hoping or expecting to see at the event? Were they there to witness the train-wreck that would inevitably unfold? Or — a possibility maybe even worse to contemplate — did they show up to capture the exultation and gratitude, the rapturous looks on the faces of the individuals who gained entry to this odd spectacle and collected their promised $300?

The recurring image of society’s poorest somehow also blessed by fortune has it seems an irresistible attraction. The lucky beggar comes up so often and resides so durably in the public imagination that it is hard not to see this entity as serving the function of wish fulfillment. This figure escapes the common (also fictive) distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor; instead, it reflects a universe that is theoretically indifferent, in which rewards are handed out through luck alone. (In the universe of the lucky beggar, impoverishment by chance may be implied but certainly isn’t specified.) Success and failure are distributed randomly, and the condition of having or wanting money simply happens by happy accident — as if poverty is not, for many minority, rural, and other populations prepared and in cases virtually assured by the economic mechanisms that ensnare them. The lucky beggar sustains a fantasy, perhaps, that beggars would be so lucky that beggary or even poverty itself would cease to exist. Yet it also welcomes an “it could happen to anyone” mindset that may rather sustain than alleviate poverty in the long run.

Late in 2012 the “Lucky Beggar Wallet” was introduced for sale by CB2, the hipper and more affordable branch of the Crate and Barrel retail empire. CB2’s ad copy read: “Inspired by the iconic blue and white coffee cup often seen in the hands of New York City panhandlers, this quirky wallet begs to be seen.” The wallet was quickly pulled after public complaint, though it remains for sale online.

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The Lucky Beggar Wallet episode has in common with Chen’s exercise in self-promoting philanthropy more than its spectacular misdelivery; both posit the same imaginary figure. In each case the failure to launch of these schemes became a newsworthy item in its own right — as if the potency of the lucky beggar fantasy extends to feelings of disappointed expectation at being deceived. (Disappointment may indeed be as intrinsic here as the incitements of illusory promise; Pity would be no more.)  A seductive but prohibitive fiction, the lucky beggar is an appealing prospect but also mostly banished from sight. Perhaps what America finds intolerable in this figure is not its patent falsehoods but its kernel of truth: that with so few sources of security available, anyone who has “made it” today can only consider themselves the beneficiaries of blind fortune (lucky beggars, of a sort). That poverty is no longer exceptional, but ordinary. That there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

 

*Thanks to @hystericalblkns for first bringing the Chen story to my attention.

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On MOOCs, and telescopic philanthropy

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Every reader of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House will remember the character Mrs. Jellyby, a woman whose “telescopic philanthropy” leaves her domestic life in disarray. Mrs. Jellyby is devoted to the cause of the people from a village in Africa, “Borrioboola-Gha.” With eyes that look as if they “could see nothing nearer than Africa,” Mrs. Jellyby is so preoccupied by this imaginary faraway place that she utterly neglects the world around her. 

Mrs. Jellyby has been on my mind lately in connection to a question about the measure of responsibility that institutions as well as individuals have to serve and support their local communities. The question of what institutions and individuals may owe to their surroundings resurfaced for me when the Community Development Department of Cambridge MA released its report on poverty in the city last month. The results, based on census data for the years 2009-11, are not encouraging. The report shows, among other things, high degrees of poverty among black and Latino/a residents of the city — slightly higher than the national average in both cases. Poverty in Cambridge is densely concentrated too, with a significant percentage of the city’s poor clustered in only six census tracts in the city. North Cambridge, where I live, contains almost a quarter of Cambridge’s poor (see figure). Another significant area of poverty is concentrated on the perimeters of the Kendall Square technology hub near MIT, in Area IV and East Cambridge. Cambridge is sometimes depicted as an enclave of political progressivism even within the left-leaning state of Massachusetts. But the data on poverty in the city effectively dismantles any such illusions about the “Peoples’ Republic of Cambridge,” showing the presence of deep economic and racial inequality within its borders. 

I live in a neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city and am so not entirely surprised by the information revealed in the report. But the report is sobering and important for making the extent of the problem plainly visible. It seems to me impossible that residents of Cambridge could meet news of a crisis of this extent with complacency. The city council is taking the information seriously, and I hope that other communities in and around Cambridge do the same. The report points to a matter of urgent concern for the city, necessitating concerted action. 

What can Cambridge’s universities do to serve their city and local communities in the midst of a crisis of widespread poverty? What can and does the university in general do to address problems of poverty and vast income equality in its neighborhoods? In posing these questions I am reminded that universities in Massachusetts enjoy tax exemption on grounds that “citizen education [i]s an essential governmental function.” When addressing what universities specifically do to support the communities of which they are a part, university administrations often reply, as does the University of Massachusetts Treasurer’s Office on the website linked above, that institutions of higher learning serve their communities most effectively as hubs for citizen education.  

One form of educational outreach for which Harvard and MIT are now widely known, of course, is their development of online learning initiatives including MOOCs. As edX president Anant Agarwal recently affirmed, “Improving global access to high-quality education has been a key edX goal from day one.” Massively open online courses are often remarked on for their potential in facilitating global outreach (or more pessimistically, cultural colonialism) by elite institutions of higher education. A New York Times story this fall, “The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator,” gave an in-depth anecdotal account of how a Mongolian child who participated in MITx’s electrical engineering MOOCs did so well that he subsequently obtained admission to MIT. The article presented MITx and related endeavors as poised to serve as a global farm system for unrecognized talent from poor communities worldwide. But HarvardX researcher Justin Reich observed in a blog post that the “boy genius” in question had in fact enjoyed the considerable advantages of a supportive network of adult mentors around him, which prepared the ground for his academic success and recognition by MIT. The inspiring story of a Mongolian village boy whose life was changed by MOOCs, plucked from obscurity by one of the world’s leading educational institutions in science and technology, was partly fictional. 

I have been saying for a while now that I would like to see MOOCs do more to include in their outreach efforts those populations nearest to them as well as those farthest away. In a blog post last year, I proposed that MOOCs might be involved in a broader effort to strengthen local and community ties:

[I]n addition to the flat, global learning community ritually invoked as the audience for MOOCs, we could benefit from thinking locally too. How can the online course format make possible new relationships not only with the most far-flung remote corners of the earth but with the neighborhoods and communities nearest to campus? Can we make MOOCs that foster meaningful links with the community or create learning communities that cut across both the university and the online platform?

In thinking about how the energies and educational resources of elite institutions might be brought more fully to bear to one of the most urgent issues facing the city today, I would not be understood to seek an exclusively technological solution to complex problems; nor do I mean to suggest that such a solution exists. It’s not impossible that blended learning environments created with the purpose to engage the local community would be ultimately ineffective in addressing the problem of poverty in the city. Indeed we could find to be truth what some have already suspected, that the MOOC is a fundamentally ineffective medium, the modern equivalent of Mrs. Jellyby’s ceaseless letters on behalf of Borriobhoola-Gha. But simple one-sided philanthropy of this order will clearly not be enough. A mission of outreach and engagement with the local community would obviously require a greater investment than the bequest of iPads to students in chronically underfunded school districts, or the introduction of One Laptop Per Child in impoverished regions of the globe. I remain interested in how the digital medium, so long conceived as enabling a flight from materiality, might play a role in creating learning communities and engaging residents on the streets where we live and work. Poverty is a matter of shared concern, for which collaborative and creative thinking of local communities is urgently needed — “by any medium necessary.”

Reading the Pope, reading the present

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The Vatican released this week Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, the Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospels”).  The exhortation is the first of Francis’ papacy.  It’s a doozy — and not only for being the most widely-read essay with more than 200 endnotes.

From this lengthy document, a relatively small segment of the exhortation (paragraphs 53-60, of 288 in total) have so far attracted the most attention in the English-speaking world. These remarks concern the “tyranny” of unfettered capitalism, the exploitative nature of “trickle-down” economic theories, the growing divide between the rich and the poor, and the increasing problem of global poverty. Much of the press reporting on the Pope’s exhortation has focused on these arguments. (See for instance articles from The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and Salon.)  The Pope’s remarks on economics have invited many inevitable comparisons to Marx — by Rush Limbaugh, among others — as well as some to less inevitable entities (Karl Polanyi, for instance, or the Oberlin College Newspaper).

The Pope’s assessment of the crises of contemporary capitalism has scandalized some and gratified many others who are glad to see the Pontiff attend to matters of present and widespread concern. Though not a Catholic, I too am engaged by the Pope’s words. I am just as fascinated by the passage that precedes these by now well-known paragraphs on the depredations of unfettered capitalist growth. Paragraphs 50 and 51, which introduce the second chapter of the Pope’s exhortation, are less newsworthy than the paragraphs that follow, though to my mind they are no less remarkable in constituting a reflection on the necessity, challenges and paradoxes involved in reflecting on the present time.

The preamble to Chapter 2 of the exhortation, “Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment,” opens with an appeal to consider the situation of contemporary life — “the context in which we all have to live and work” (50). “We” are thus brought to the scene of crisis itself, and to the condition of being “amid” this crisis, rather than a passive witness to it.  The position of immanence that Francis urges parishioners to assume is consistent with a now-famous statement from the previous paragraph: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (49).

Paragraph 51 continues in this vein by emphasizing the necessity of attending closely to “present realities”:

It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality, but I do exhort all the communities to an “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times.”  This is in fact a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse.  (51)

Francis prepares the ground for the argument to follow with this call to the “analysis of contemporary reality.” The implication from the warning at the end of this passage is that the agents most clearly responsible for “present realities,” those in other words most committed to the untrammeled expansion and consolidation of wealth, the triumph of free market ideology, the multiplication of capitalism’s externalities in the continued destruction of the environment, and so on, are also those least invested in undertaking such an analysis. Francis thus shares with thinkers from Nietzsche to Agamben the idea that to be contemporary is to be at once in sync and out of step with “present realities.”  The “analysis of contemporary life” requires some measure of distance from present time; in essential respects it is, as Nietzsche reminds us, an untimely [Unzeitgemässe] endeavor — “acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time.”

As it happens, the call to contemporaneity and to the consideration of “certain present realities” has a long history — both in the Papal tradition and elsewhere.  The “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times” refers, as Francis’ note informs us, to the 1964 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam suam (1964). In this text, Paul endorsed his predecessor Pope John XXIII’s program of Aggiornamento, a “bringing-up-to-date,” as “the guiding principle” of the Catholic church, as well as “the aim and object of Our own pontificate.” In the encyclical Paul VI urged the Church “to take stock of itself and give careful consideration to the signs of the times” (50).

The appeal to the “signs of the times” was one of the rallying cries of the Aggiornamento, calling the priests and laity to consideration of the modern world.  “Signs of the times” has been a phrase regularly invoked since the days of Pope John XXIII — Francis being here no exception.  The phrase is famously associated with its usage in the pastoral constitution of Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et spes (1965):

the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.   (4)

The Papal use of the phrase has its origin in the gospel of Matthew (16:3), where Jesus upbraids the Saduccees and Pharisees for being better acquainted with meteorological portents than with those of greater and more lasting significance currently passing on earth: “O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” (KJV).  

To attend to the “signs of the times” is at once, then, to scan the present and to anticipate the future. In the Catholic context, the exhortation to scrutinize the signs of the times connects the activity of reading the present to the venerable traditions of the past too (both recent and ancient).  Francis recovers some of the original urgency attached to the activity of discerning the “signs of the times” by referring to the threat of “dehumanization,” and insists on its being the responsibility of all. Notwithstanding the disclaimer that the Pope’s task is not to provide a comprehensive “analysis of contemporary reality,” the necessity of attending to the signs of times turns even the leader of the Catholic church into a bit of a sociologist. At the same time, Francis is frank (sorry) about the limitations of such analysis:

Today, we frequently hear of a “diagnostic overload” which is not always accompanied by improved and actually applicable methods of treatment. Nor would we be well served by a purely sociological analysis which would aim to embrace all of reality by employing an allegedly neutral and clinical method. What I would like to propose is something much more in the line of an evangelical discernment.  (50)

The condition of “diagnostic overload” is one remarked upon in the present by many well outside the Catholic faith. Academic readers may associate the Pope’s caution with similar assessments of the forms and disciplines of “sociological” critique in the university — among others, with Bruno Latour’s assertion that the explanations furnished by critique have, as in the title of his well-known essay, “run out of steam,” outlived their usefulness, and so need either to be reinvented or discarded entirely. I am reminded of a brilliant and beautiful remark by Lauren Berlant about the limitations of the kind of critique that humanists frequently carry out: “The correct analysis of a symptom does not reveal, produce, point to, or give confidence about the shape of its cure, which is why so much work in the humanities limps along in the phrases that follow out the description of a problem.”

Francis’ reflection on the limitations of “sociological analysis” and on the conditions of contemporary life urges us think anew about what happens when we train the eye of criticism on the “signs of the times.” If the principle of “evangelical discernment” does not seem quite adequate to the purposes of scholarship and social criticism in a secular age, I would not quite wish to resort to the luxury of condescension either. The effort to renew the project that Foucault named “the history of the present” will need — has always needed — more than “an allegedly critical and clinical method” is capable of providing.  What methods will arise in its place may still need to be worked out.

Of pleasure problems (and Louis CK)

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“There is a host of arguments in these feelings” – William Wordsworth

     I have been working on a project about beauty that attempts to restore to view the mixed and conflicted character of this aesthetic category. The beautiful is conventionally identified with feelings of unmixed pleasure on the part of the spectator, in marked contrast to the sublime. If pleasure is regarded — by Gilles Deleuze, among others — as a domain where affective intensities are neutralized, the beautiful is typically conceived as a refined and uniformly mild expression of pleasure. Yet in experiences of the beautiful, feelings of pleasure and displeasure frequently operate in unison; the feeling of pleasure in beauty regularly appears in conjunction with sensations of irritation, discomfort, or displeasure inseparable from the pleasurable circumstances that call the experience forth. 

     One of my goals in examining such moments to arrive at a new and more adequate account of the relationship between affect and the subset of affective experiences we call “aesthetic.” To this end, the project situates the beautiful in relation to a larger category of what I call “pleasure problems.” The pleasure problem refers to circumstances in which the predictable functions or operations of pleasure have been impeded, arrested, suspended, or set aside. These are often circumstances where pleasure takes on a problematic aspect, though the pleasure problem may with equal likelihood represent conditions in which pleasure emerges, improbably, from problematic circumstances. 

     The larger project draws mainly on writing in aesthetics and poetry from the long eighteenth century. But there is a much longer tradition behind the blended quality of pleasure and pain in experiences of the beautiful — and one needn’t look two hundred years into the past to find an illustration of the pleasure problem either. For a contemporary instance, we can look to the opening sequence from a 2011 episode of the sitcom Louie (season 2, episode 6, “Subway/Pamela”). 

     This episode delays the opening credits and reverses the typical sequence, beginning with Louie emerging from a comedy club rather than descending into one. Louie is shown walking down the stairs onto the subway tracks where a handsome young man in a tuxedo is playing violin. (The piece, as I learned from the internet, is “Csárdás” by Vittorio Monti [1904].) Louie tosses a bill into the violinist’s case as he passes and leans against a girder to watch him. The man playing the violin is beautiful; the piece he is playing is beautiful. 

     As he watches the violinist, an older, heavyset man laden with large plastic bags descends the stairs onto the platform. The man lays out a plastic sheet on the tile floor, removes his shirt, pours soapy water over his head and proceeds to bathe himself with abandon. The man’s appearance on the subway platform is preposterous; his condition would be heartbreaking were it not for the obvious relish (and obliviousness) with which he scrubs himself. We see the man’s body, pink, wet, and glistening, as he reaches down behind himself to soap between his ass-cheeks. The violinist and the homeless man occupy the same visual plane; in one shot (shown above) we see the back of Louie’s head as he looks on at both. 

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    Critics noted of this scene how in Louis CK’s New York City, the beautiful and ugly, romantic and repulsive, are yoked together in visual proximity. Were Louis CK a sociologist of aesthetics in the Bourdieuian vein, one could read the sequence as pointing to beauty’s silent dependence on an extruded material remainder. The repulsive, shirtless man operates in the scene as the unavoidable background from which the beautiful man and his beautiful music springs. In this way is the beautiful conceived as emerging from a background of negativity, of poverty and privation, even as our unmixed pleasure in the beautiful somehow depends on us being blind to these conditions. Once you admit those conditions into your field of view, beauty ceases to be wholly pleasureable.

     While I detect the elements of an aesthetic theory here, it is not Bourdieu’s. In an interview Louis CK described the genesis of the scene: “The violin player, I came up with because a woman played violin at my daughter’s school concert, and I almost cried just from hearing the music, so I kind of dreamt up that sequence.” This scene of emotion recollected in absurdity converts a beautiful memory into an occasion for laughter by juxtaposing it with something absurd and repulsive. But then too, to get at what is involved in a pleasure so intense as to make one feel like crying, one would have to imagine how the beautiful could produce feelings of discomfort or displeasure. Louie depicts this proximity of affects even before the old man’s entry. In successive shots, we see the stages of Louie’s response, from the clenched and exhausted facial expression many wear in the subway — 

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to a pose of relative contemplation. His face softens. 

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In the shot just prior to the old man’s entrance, Louie’s head appears once more in tighter close-up. His face momentarily contorts; the expression is a wince, an expression of emotion, even of pain. 

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Later, shifting his view between the beautiful violinist and the homeless man, Louie again winces, with a face that signals strong discomfort and disgust. Before the entry of the homeless man, however — a wince. The wince of “pleasure” precedes and anticipates the wince of disgust.

     That the scene unfolds entirely from Louie’s perspective (a perspective that, as the second sequence of the episode establishes, may be wholly imaginary) is not incidental. In the interview, Louis CK says: “The whole subway episode was supposed to be an entire episode of me observing and not talking to anybody. I wanted to do a whole episode that just shows me scratching in my notebook and looking at people, and seeing things happen.” The sense that what is seen in the episode is seeing itself explains why all traces of the female are erased (the biographical context of a woman playing violin at his daughter’s school) in favor of the homoerotic (a man observing men) or the intrasubjectively narcissistic (a man contemplating two separate and ludicrously juxtaposed externalizations of his own aesthetic response).

     But what Louie sees is nothing special. He is an ordinary guy, an Everyshmuck; his representativeness as White/professional/middle-aged/divorced/a father is repeatedly emphasized in the show. The scene in other words presents an extravagant image of contrast in order to display something about the everyday perception of beauty. It illustrates how, before the sight of a beautiful person playing (beautifully) a beautiful piece of music, one cries — or winces. 

     The excellence of Louie consists not simply in how imaginatively it represents absurd and improbable scenes of contrast. It is great too for the ease with which it makes visible qualities not typically subject to empirical verification. I’m interested in how this scene articulates a principle I’ve wished to trace more broadly: that to problematize pleasure is a way of visualizing a property of pleasure itself. To problematize an experience like that of beautiful is no more than to ask questions of it — not because the experience is itself so frail (it is not), but because nothing is more natural than to call it into question. Where one seeks pleasure, one finds pleasure problems.