Self-Measurement and the Particular Examen

August 25, 2010


The Times article “The Data-Driven Life” struck me as ripe for commentary when it was published in early May.   Nevertheless, with life and exam week being what they were, it fell to the bottom of the stack.  But even if the piece isn’t exactly hot off the press, I still think it worth a review for the light that it sheds on the Ignatian practice of the particular examen of conscience.

“The Data-Driven Life” is really a string of personal testimonials in favor of the practice of computerized self-measurement.  With the miniaturization of sensors, the proliferation of apps, and the mobilization of data processors (i.e., i-phones), self-improvement junkies can now monitor their every move with a minimum of inconvenience.  And since our perception of even our most objective activities tends to be skewed toward the satisfaction of our appetites and away from painful self knowledge, the cold objectivity of data streams can be a bit bracing. Read the rest of this entry »

Sexual Malaises

June 30, 2010


They used to say that only Nixon could go to China.  Similarly, perhaps only one with the feminist bona fides of Camille Paglia could pronounce

Camille Paglia

the sexual revolution a blight on sexual pleasure, all the while calling for the cure of more strictly demarcated gender roles.  According to Paglia’s recent op-ed in the New York Times, the “elemental power of sexuality” has waned in the West, not because of religious stricture, but because of recent technocratic and bourgeois proprieties.  The sexual revolution never bore the promised fruit because

concrete power resides in America’s careerist technocracy, for which the elite schools, with their ideological view of gender as a social construct, are feeder cells.

In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure.

Meanwhile, family life has put middle-class men in a bind; they are simply cogs in a domestic machine commanded by women. Contemporary moms have become virtuoso super-managers of a complex operation focused on the care and transport of children. But it’s not so easy to snap over from Apollonian control to Dionysian delirium. Read the rest of this entry »

The Times Take 3: The Stephen Kiesle Files

April 12, 2010


Ratzinger MemoI find myself praying a lot for Pope Benedict these days.  From within the U.S., of course, it’s easy to overestimate how much the sniping of the New York Times actually roils global Catholicism.  Nonetheless, as the Times stacks one leaky bucket atop another, it’s easy here to forget that they all leak.  And, because of both the uniquely spiritual outlook of the Roman Catholic Church and the highly technical nature of her legal terms, it’s easy to impute malice and self-protection to garden-variety Vatican heel-dragging.  The saga of Stephen Kiesle, the third and most recent of the front-pagers for the Times, is a case in point.

I feel compelled, in the interest of fairness, to make a few points specifically concerning Pope Benedict’s alleged negligence in this regard:

The Bronx Paradox

March 25, 2010


I like cultural paradoxes.  They often give us a keyhole view onto the vast room of the “unthought,” i.e., those scarcely-noticed prejudices and instincts that color thought and action.  So, in that voyeuristic spirit, I thought I would draw attention to the “Bronx Paradox,” the puzzling coincidence of hunger and obesity chronicled recently in the New York Times:

The Bronx has the city’s highest rate of obesity, with residents facing an estimated 85 percent higher risk of being obese than people in Manhattan, according to Andrew G. Rundle, an epidemiologist at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

But the Bronx also faces stubborn hunger problems. According to a survey released in January by the Food Research and Action Center, an antihunger group, nearly 37 percent of residents in the 16th Congressional District, which encompasses the South Bronx, said they lacked money to buy food at some point in the past 12 months. That is more than any other Congressional district in the country and twice the national average, 18.5 percent, in the fourth quarter of 2009.

Hunger and obesity are now so closely linked that the Department of Agriculture dropped the word “hungry” from its official reports in 2006.  It now prefers the term “food insecure.” Read the rest of this entry »

Spiritual Imperialism

January 13, 2010


It’s always fun to bemoan Western imperialism.  In fact, it’s become something of a fashionable pastime for most socially conscious Catholic pundits and homilists.  In the end, however, most such criticisms end up being a bit superficial.  We instinctively employ our own favored militaristic and market-based criteria.  Consequently, we end up focusing on foreign wars and cruel sweatshops, and we promote multilateral diplomacy and fair trade coffee in response.  In other words, we end up with distinctly American criticisms of America.

To its credit, the recent New York Times article on the “Americanization of Mental Illness” begins to go a bit deeper.  It still remains somewhat imprisoned within American plausibility structures, since it draws its criteria and evidence almost entirely from the statistical method of public health.  Nonetheless, the somewhat lengthy article brings up some interesting points:

  • Mental illnesses vary from culture to culture.
  • By universalizing the mental health categories developed to treat modern Western afflictions, America is indirectly exporting its own mental illnesses.
  • At least some mental illnesses (e.g., schizophrenia) are better treated by folk methods.
  • Western anomie may be partly to blame for both the incidence of mental illness and impotence of contemporary therapies.

These points are of interest mainly because they point to a deeper imperialism of the spirit. Read the rest of this entry »

Wendell Berry and the EcoDorm

October 15, 2009


I am often struck by a story or article that I don’t have time to follow up on–at least right away.  Maybe that’s not all bad, since the transience of blog posts tends to discourage rumination and measured response.  In that spirit, I’m posting something I’ve been digesting for a fortnight.

Two issues ago, the New York Times Magazine featured a low-key and appreciative story on Warren Wilson’s new eco-friendly dorm (accessible only with on-line member ID).  The accompanying photo gallery is filled with young, self-consciously earthy students of European extraction.  They are depicted lounging in their dorm, drying clothes on a line, playing banjos and bending iron railings in their shop.  All in all, the article attempts to portray what the director of the school’s Environmental Leadership Center calls “an integration of life and values.”  They like their food home-grown, their furnishings hand-made, and their music unamplified.

The one incongruous picture, however, is the shot of an attractive young couple, lounging together in their dorm room (shown above and in the print edition, but not included in the online gallery).  The intimacy of the pose suggests a romantic relationship.  The caption informs us that the couple “met at a camp for home-schooled children when they were 14.  They share an EcoDorm room.  Two other couples cohabit in the dorm.”

The picture is notable not only because it adds little to the “integration of life and values” touted above, but because it goes so far as to contradict it.  Organic living lies cheek-to-jowl with industrial sex. Read the rest of this entry »

The Wisdom of Old Age

August 27, 2009


In his exuberance for the progress of scientific knowledge, Francis Bacon coined the paradox, antiquitas saeculi, juventus mundi—“Antiquity is the youth of the world.”  By this he meant only the now commonplace view that human knowledge progresses.  What we commonly regard as ancient is so only according to a backward reckoning from the present.  By the forward reckoning of the world itself, however, the present age qualifies as the eldest of epochs.  Therefore, the views of the present—not those of the remote past—ought to enjoy the prestige and deference ascribed to hoary old age.  

At least on occasion, however, it seems that Bacon got his age typology backwards.  The most recently founded fields of study, for instance, often show a peculiar and youthful zeal for proving the obvious. Read the rest of this entry »