Monday, June 24, 2019

So You Want to Become an Excellent Writer

A good writer writes well. This truism maintains that a good writer is has mastered the craft of writing. Unfortunately, this feat does not come without considerable effort, for takes some good old-fashioned study in grammar and spelling. Unfortunately, the linguistic mechanics furnish only the means of entry, though this point seems to be lost on the American English teachers who slighted grammar pedagogically in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. Perhaps the novelists who have felt immune from being grammatical for the sake of style have been the interlarded culprits behind the trend of grammar be viewed as relative or an elective. To be sure, style has right of exception, but the problem is when the exceptions become the norm and even an excuse for bad grammar. This is all just foundational stuff; the quality distinguishing the excellent writer from even a good one is passion-fueled insight. The writer who writes out of a strong urge, or instinct, to express an insight publicly naturally finds his or her own voice, and thus identity, as a writer.  In this sense, a writer is like an entrepreneur whose passion breaks through the confines of an organizational structure like lava pushes through the tough shell of a lava dome.
As an entrepreneur, Richard Branson founded the Virgin Group, which went on to include more than 300 companies in the second quarter of 2011. Ordinarily, the reality of running a cumbersome corporation saps entrepreneurial talent, which enables managerial creatures to swoop in and take the reins of power from the founder. In the case of Branson, however, having a large company did not prevent him from taking on new commercial ventures that reflected his dreams in a way that solidified rather than weakened his control. "I'm just ridiculously lucky," he said, "and [I] just love to live my dreams." True to form, he pioneered Virgin Galactic into space and Virgin Oceanic into the deep sea, utilizing the wealth of a large corporation to do so. 
The key to Branson’s business success was his strong passion for exploration. "The interesting thing about exploration is . . . you never quite know what you're going to discover," he said. A discovery is often a significant find, even one that is of a hitherto unknown paradigm. For example, commercial flights into orbit or even the moon would change the meaning of flights. The uncertainty alone of such a paradigm-changer could easily be choked by organizational managers reflecting the caution that has been innate in most corporate cultures. 
Similarly, editors at publishing houses can act as conservative hedges against a novel idea reaching an audience and hopefully society itself. Like Branson, an excellent writer merges the strong motive of a passion with something new enough to matter. Accordingly, Branson’s advice on choosing a profession has bearing on writers: "don't try to start a business because you think you can make money. Start a business because you really want to."
Similarly, the excellent writer utilizes the mechanics of writing to express an underlying passion rather than merely to write for its own sake or to make money. Such a writer is likely to deliver a unique and interesting perspective that is a real contribution because passion tends to go further in the sense of uncovering. Passion-fueled insight can be revolutionary, and thus be a provocation to the interests vested in the status quo. 
In terms of writing, revolutionary ideas such as those of the European philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century can simply be ignored until long after the writer’s death. No philosopher is a man of his times, Nietzsche wrote. No paradigm-wrestling philosopher that is; plenty of pedestrian philosophers fit perfectly well in the society of their day. Such philosophers tend to study minutia and fit in cubby-holes at universities. To question the assumptions of the operating paradigm of the day and even present alternatives is the mission of a learned philosopher whose learning has enabled him or her to escape the usual orbits. Unitary explorers who have a passion for their respective unique ideas, which are of tremendous value, are not only those philosophers, but great writers more generally who have something very significant to present to the world.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Is Blogging a Marxist Activity?

In writing posts on a blog, is a blogger alienated, or estranged, from his or her own labor and the product (i.e., the posts)? If not, would Karl Marx say that both the blogging activity and any resulting content exemplify his ideal? In short, are bloggers de facto Marxists? Or are we entrepreneurs better suited to Capitalism? In this respect, we can distinguish the free-standing blogger from the blogger who works on a blog owned by a company (i.e., others).
In answering these questions, I look first at Marx’s criticism of labor that is alienated from the worker. Marx argues that a worker laboring on another’s product is estranged from both the worker’s own labor and the product. In both respects, clues of the sort of labor that Marx advocates can be found. From these inferences, I turn to Marx’s positive characterization of labor that is natural for the sapiens species, drawing also on Maslow, Locke, and the erasable Nietzsche for additional support.
In terms of the worker being alienated or estranged from the product of his or her own labor, Marx offers the following explanation. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself.”[1]
That of his life that a worker puts into the product by means of his labor being mixed into the product in process does not give him a property right in the product as Locke would insist; rather, that of the worker’s life that is put into the product is lost to the worker when the product leaves his hands and belongs entirely to another (i.e., the property owner, or capitalist). As the worker works on more products, the worker’s wages per unit decreases because the owner of the means of production and the product receives less revenue per product. In other words, mass production is a volume business depending in part on low labor costs (i.e., the cost leadership strategy). With lower wages per unit, the worker himself can afford to buy fewer commodities, hence he lacks objects. Also, he lacks objects in that he immediately loses contact with the objects of his labor once he has put his labor into them. Of course, the products were never his, even as he worked on them. Accordingly, the "alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.”[2]
That the product belongs to another (i.e., the property owner) accounts for its external existence. Accordingly, that of the worker’s own life that is mixed into the product belongs to someone else rather than himself. The worker is thus cut off from part of his own life. The power of the object that confronts the worker in a hostile manner stems from the adversarial relationship between a worker and the property-owner that is exploitive. In short, the worker is estranged both from his own life that he puts into the product and the product itself. It follows that he is alienated from the production process too. (T)he estrangement is manifested not only in the result but in the act of production, within the producing activity, itself. How could the worker come to face the product of his activity as a stranger, were it not that in the very act of production he was estranging himself from himself? The product is after all but the summary of the activity, of production. If then the product of labor is alienation, production itself must be active alienation, the alienation of activity, the activity of alienation.”[3] In other words, the worker’s labor is not her own, even during the activity of laboring. According to Marx, “the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another.”[4] It is, one might say, a kind of theft protected by the laws of property and the related sanctity of contract.
From this account, we can begin to construct Marx’s view on how labor and its products ought to be related to the worker. Already, we can infer that the life of the worker that the worker herself puts into the products through her labor should belong to her. She should feel that a part of herself—her life—is in the product as well as the production process. Hence, the worker does not view either one as an object, not to mention alien and hostile. Economically, that the worker’s life materialized is not separated from the worker implies that the worker has some ownership interest in both the labor process and the product. Granted that Marx can be labeled an economic materialist, I find psychology to be salient in his positive account of labor.
For example, Marx claims that for labor to be external to the worker means that “it does not belong to his intrinsic nature.”[v] Therefore, work activity should reflect one’s intrinsic nature. Furthermore, through such activity and the products thereof, the worker should be able to affirm or validate herself, hence feel content and free enough to develop her physical and mental energy to strengthen her body and mind. All this is implied in the following: In work external to the worker, “he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home.”[6] 
Put in Maslow’s terms, applying one’s labor to a product that reflects one’s life naturally facilitates self-actualization. Marx claims that the productive life of a human being is naturally “life-engendering”[7] It is in the nature of our species that we come to learn more about ourselves through our work—both in the activity and from the results. Put another way, seeing one’s life expressed tangibly tells one something new about one’s life and one’s very self. We are naturally at one with our life activity, which “appears only as a means of life.”[8] Moreover, “Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. . . .  (H)e duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created.”[9] How could the worker not learn more about himself from seeing himself in a world materialized in a product that he himself has created?
In writing an essay on a blog, whether involving one’s political, economic, social, moral or religious values and beliefs, a blogger is there, putting his life—and indeed himself—into not only the process of writing (and designing the blog itself), but also the contents of the posts, whether intentionally or not.
The blogger who dutifully writes a daily online-diary of her personal life, for instance, is pours her life and her passion quite intentionally into her writing (both as her writing process and the content of her writing). Her productive activity is essentially an imprint of her memory and her processing of it cognitively. Her very being is engaged and displayed. She might even have a picture of herself on her blog’s home-page. Such a blogger is certainly not alienated from her own blog, the writing process, or the written content. The blog is an extension of her life-experience and her creative spirit whose shadow she has made concrete without being forced to regard the imprint as an object external to, or even cut off from her, as if she were a mother forced to part with her infant whom a property-owner views as a commodity.
Even regarding scholars, such as me, who write and post essays applying theory to unpack current events for the general educated reader, we ourselves are in our respective approaches to writing as well as in the content. Friedrich Nietzsche, a German classicist and moral philosopher writing in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, argues in his writing that when a philosopher reasons and is in the process of writing, the contending reasons are actually urges, or instincts, vying for dominance over each other. The written page is a snapshot of whichever instincts were on top when the philosopher wrote down the words. It follows that a scholar puts his or her life—indeed, very being—into his or her rational, “objective” academic writing. The instincts that manifest as values and beliefs are not absent from the fight for dominance inside the philosopher’s psyche. Hence, differing appreciably from Flaubert, Nietzsche urges us to write with passion—with ourselves personally engaged—rather than to write from a distance from ourselves by striving to perfect our writing-form. “Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his blood. Write with blood, and you will find that blood is spirit.”[10]
Also in line with Marx’s ideal, a blogger typically does not lose the product once it has been mixed with one’s labor. Even in syndication, a blogger holds the copyright. A blogger can go back to “revise and extend” any of his published posts. Both the way in which a particular blogger revises and the content itself that the blogger deems so important (or unimportant) to add (or remove) says something more about the blogger, as does comparing the revised “edition” to the original. Perhaps different instincts had overcome the hegemony of those imprinted in the original.
In short, a blogger infuses her thought-process, values, beliefs, and ideologies—indeed, even her intrinsic nature—in both the process and product, the latter remaining with rather than estranged from the laborer. Marx would be pleased—more so, I might add, than had he lived to witness the U.S.S.R. Next to writing a book or screenplay, blogging may even be the epitome of Marx’s ideal work-activity on account of the salience of both self-expression and freedom-of-expression in the writing as a process and enduring rather than alienated product. In multiplying the freedom realizable in the species’ productive activity, the internet may just be the world of self-realization through labor that Marx himself could never have imagined.

 [1] Marx, Karl, “Estranged Labour,” Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. (Marxists.org). Accessed August 18, 2013.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ch. 7.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Ethics in Blogging: A Normative Constraint on Excessive Economizing and Power-Aggrandizement

Blogs are interesting creatures. Like humans, they seek not merely self-preservation, but also the expansion of their domain on the internet. The empire-building does not have power-aggrandizement as its goal; rather, bloggers use what power they have to maximize the reach of their words. To be heard by as many people as possible—as if quantity were more important than quality—is a still more intermediate means, with the end being to bring one's words to the world-at-large. At the extreme, a blogger wants to see a world that has become a projection of his or her own words. Less extreme, a blogger wants to be a significant player in societal discussions even beyond the internet. Toward such ends, bloggers economize in the sense of seeking to minimize what they incorporate of other blogs beyond what they view as being useful to themselves, while attempting to maximize that of themselves that is incorporated on other blogs by power or moral suasion. For example, a blogger might say to another blogger, “I’ll blogroll you if you blogroll me.” This is a variant of “I’ll follow you if you follow me” on Twitter. As Susan Gunelius, an expert on blog marketing, observes in Blogging for Dummies, such reciprocity is no longer a normative practice in blogging. Indeed, the “I’ll follow you if you follow me” mentality is questionable at best. It implies that one person follows another not because of any value perceived on the followed’s account, but, rather, solely so he or she can be followed by yet another person. In other words, the apparent reciprocity is actually egoist.
Fortunately, “semi-permeable” normative constraints can be applied to the two forces that seek to maximize self-interest. One might call such constraints ecologizing, for like an ecosystem they can be breached by a maximizing species or variable within. Susan Gunelius points to a few of the ethical “rules” that can act as constraints via pressure from other bloggers.
Spam can be interpreted as economizing or power-aggrandizing forces that fail to respect the normative "rules" of the internet society. Comment spam, for example, utilizes a useless or irrelevant comment-posting simply to self-promote (i.e., to economize) through links. Post-spam reduces a blogger’s own post to an otherwise content-empty medium advertising the blog itself or someone else’s product in exchange for samples or money. Both of these kinds of spam are unethical because they operate under a subterfuge (i.e., promising to be something other than what they are). The underlying selfishness fuses with theft (i.e., stealing other bloggers’ time and effort in reading), and thus manifests passive aggression. In other words, it is a “taking” beyond that which the spammer is entitled to take.
As another example of the mentality that has a difficult time with limitation, some bloggers steal the bandwidth of other bloggers. According to Gunelius (2010, p. 69), bloggers and website owners can be charged more if the amount of time that their content is accessed increases dramatically, “such as when other bloggers use images without saving them to their own hosting accounts first.” Gunelius claims that a blogger should copy and save the picture (assuming fair use) before inserting the image in the post. Otherwise, the excess power-aggrandizing steals more than time and effort.
In describing excessive economizing and power-aggrandizing in blogging beyond ethical, or “ecologizing,” constraints, I have sought to bring out the element of passive aggression. The anger that bloggers feel toward the “cheaters” is not only due to the unfairness in the manipulation; the response is also to the passive aggression. If the responses go beyond what is proportionate, however, excessive power-aggrandizement is involved in the victims as well. Such anger “over the top” is also evinced in comments that are hateful or otherwise attacking. It is the sheer excess in the anger that strikes me as being in need of further explanation.  
Generally speaking, the bloggers who subscribe to normative constraints in the blogosphere recognize the existence of excessive power-aggrandizement and economizing forces in blogging. The theft and anger elements in the excess are particularly onerous. While the law cannot effectively sanction such elements, “societal” pressure can. However, lest the latter become self-righteous, it is important not to label as spam anything that is inconvenient.
For example, commenting (or tweeting) to someone on topic and including a link to one’s own post can be a legitimate part of an effort to start a conversation on a mutual topic—as long as there is content on that topic in addition to the link. You might tweet on Obama and Libya. I might send the following reply: “yeah, but Obama waited too long. So his motive is suspect. See link.” My reply was on the other’s topic and added content as well as a link to my posting on that content. To treat my tweet as cold-calling would be to overreact simply out of the mistaken belief sending out a tweet should not occasion tweets. In such overreaction is an element of presumptuousness in addition to the excessive power-aggrandizement. In other words, excess can manifest where it is least expected.  


Source: Susan Gunelius, Blogging for Dummies (Indianapolis: Wiley, 2010).

On ecologizing, economizing and power-aggrandizing forces applied to business and society, see: William C. Frederick, Values, Nature and Culture in the American Corporation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Friday, April 26, 2019

Behind the Prejudice Against Educated Clergy

Among Quakers (many congregations of which refuse to record ministers), some evangelical congregations, and other faiths such as Baha'i (which does not have a clergy), there seems to be an underlying anti-intellectual bias regarding ministers educated in theology and ministry. I think the prejudice is out of anger, whose root is the errant assumption that knowledge, even in faith seeking understanding, causes the educated person to think he or she is better than others. Relatedly, expertise is assumed, falsely again, to bring with it a more general elitism.These flawed assumptions give rise to the prejudice that being educated in theology and ministry are not of much value, as being uneducated or self-educated in the field are actually preferred qualities in cases in which ministers are used (e.g., many evangelical congregations). All this is a slap on the face to those of faith who have spent years of their lives in seminary or university, and such passive aggression goes against Jesus's message on how to treat others.
No one would suggest that the expertise of a physician from study at university is something to be spurned. No one would say that a lay healer has as much medical knowledge, at least when the person himself is ill, and yet once some people turn to the religious domain, expertise is out, even fair game for insults, in favor of the false notion of equality that affirms that it is at odds with the inequalities in expertise. I'm so used to deferring to the expertise of others whose knowledge I don't have that the refusal seems foreign to me. I do not of course deny that ministerial gifts can be outside the "faith seeking understanding" that takes place in a seminary or university. So I do not suffer from clerical exclusivity, but it is not true that the only alternative is throwing the rascals out, for their knowledge goes with them. A good cleric values his or her theological knowledge/education without being an elitist (yet while fully admitting that not everyone has such an education).
What I shake my head at in utter astonishment is how some Quakers, in refusing to record ministers even to Quakers who have studied for ministry, thereby limit the theological expertise available to Quakers. The assumption in Baha'iism is that every member is an expert; this assumption, however, does not follow from "the priesthood of all believers." Evangelical Christian congregations that prefer uneducated applicants (even those who can speak well) lose the benefits that would come from having educated ministers who can preach well.
People who have studied for years to be a minister should go elsewhere, where people would not only stand to benefit from their theological and ministerial knowledge, but would appreciate rather than feel threatened by the knowledge. Of course we are all the same relative to God, but this does not mean that we don't have different specialized knowledge areas and that some people have more knowledge than others within a field. In fact, to prefer uneducated clergy as a general preference risks a congregation being held captive by ignorance that cannot be wrong. The assumption that stifling accountability comes only from educated clergy is severely faulty; in fact, to the extent that seminarians and divinity students are taught negative theology, which holds that God is in essence unknowable, more not less humility is likely in speaking of God as well as in guiding people.
To say we all have the same expertise demands psychological rather than religious explanation, and to say that knowledge learned from scholars is not of value (in any field, even in religion) reflects a very prejudiced attitude that has all the disrespect and arrogance that is presumed to be in educated people. To be sure, theological and parish ministry knowledge is not the only beneficial ingredient; it does not guarantee good pastoral care even though the schooling includes this area too. To be more educated in religion does not mean that a person has a more compassionate heart. So, again, I am not claiming that only people educated in theology and ministry should be ministers. Rather, I am arguing that the preference, borne out of prejudice and resentment, for uneducated (or self-educated) clergy, all else equal, is unwise.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Inconvenient Truths

When I was a post-doctoral student, I sat in on a course on German films during World War II. The instructor was an 80 year-old German man whose parents had been forced into sending him to a Hitler Youth camp. I asked him once whether he had seen Hitler in person, and, if so, did he look like how the documentaries have him pictured. Having the respect for knowledge that should be expected from a scholar, he told me that he had indeed seen Hitler in person. The brutal Nazi dictator was authentically smiling during his visit to the Hitler youth.  I was surprised, as I had been brought up with the image of the grizzled grins and terse glares.  To be sure, the victor’s history fits the horrendous crimes committed, but at the cost of objectivity, which any historian should value. The subjective historical portrayal and the German professor’s honest answer led me to wonder what Hitler was really like as a person. Even the epitaph of monster does not fit with the notion of the banality of evil visible at the Eichmann trial in 1961. Eichmann had been responsible for making the trains run on time to the concentration camps.
About a decade after my conversations with the German professor, I met a 92 year-old American veteran of World War II.  Did the American people know of the holocaust? I asked. Only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, he answered. Before the U.S. went to war, the European war was something far away. When the U.S. was at war in Europe and Asia, Jewish leaders in Europe asked President Roosevelt to bomb the train tracks that were carrying the cattle-cars to the ovens. Roosevelt, the veteran said, told the Jews that he didn’t have time for that. “Wow, that’s a story!” I said in astonishment. One of the veteran’s daughters asked him how he knew this. “It was common knowledge at the time,” he replied. I had not even known that the American public knew of the gas chambers before the liberation of the camps. Even if Roosevelt wanted to be focused on military objectives because achieving them would mean winning the war, that he felt he didn’t have time to thwart the Nazis from transporting human beings to ovens astonishes me. I asked the veteran if the very language, cattle-cars to ovens applied to human beings shocked Americans during the war. He replied that “surprised” is not the right word for it. He did not characterize how he and other Americans had taken the news, which I found interesting.
Clearly, history leaves important things out, and perhaps even covers them up. Those pesky inconvenient truths are all too easily relegated to see the light of day; someone who happens upon them may display the jewels, but by that time, the knit story is so engrained that the little gems may hardly register. So what if Hitler was happy at times; what he did to his own people was much more important for us to know. So what if Roosevelt didn’t want to get involved in Germany’s internal affairs; he won the war. I think history is generally gray rather than black and white.
A day before I spoke with the veteran, I met a retired librarian who was still working on gay history. Could such a history be written and viewed objectively? I wondered.  He told me of the huge police presence in the weekend’s Phoenix Gay Pride festival and remarked that police in Tucson had physically attacked protesters outside a Trump rally during the campaign. I replied that I had been in the venue, where I saw Donald Trump looking on as a muscular military man was stomping on a protester being led up the aisle by one of Trump’s hired security men. I had wondered why people at the rally were so emotionally angry at “the protesters,” as if they all stood for one thing. Anger at people without any personal contact (the protesters were outside) had stunned me at the time. I leaned over to two undecided women seated to my right, and observed, “This feels like what a Nazi rally must have been like, with people angry at the Jews.” The two women agreed. Then we witnessed the stomping and Trump saying to the protester, “You’re disgusting” over and over as she was being stomped. Then it really felt like a Nazi rally. To the gay historian, I said, “The Germans had been mad at the Jews for a reason; Trump’s supporters at the rally had shotgun anger at an amorphous group of protesters. The Germans were annoyed because the Jews did not consider themselves Germans and thus many rich Jews held back in giving to German causes during the hard times when Germany was paying war reparations from World War I.” The gay “historian” quickly looked at his phone and discovered he had somewhere else to be. So much for objective history. I did stress that the Nazis took the resentment way too far, and that I had no idea whether the wealth Jews in Germany in the 1920's really did constrict giving out of a belief that they were not Germans and therefore had no obligation to help them in hard economic times, but the “damage” was apparently done. I should add that I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the German professor. Unlike the historian of famous gay men, the professor was open to inconvenient truths, for he acknowledged a friendly Hitler many decades after having been forced to go to Hitler Youth. I doubt either the protesters or the Trump supporters at the Tucson rally would tolerate inconvenient truths.
Perhaps as the West has secularized, the belief that truth can be (or is) partial has gained credibility. By implication, inconvenient truth can be regarded as heretical and thus rightly intolerable. To be sure, Christian sects in the West have historically gone to war over contending partisan (i.e., partial) truths even though such things can be regarded as inherently oxymoronic. In this essay, I have probably written something for everyone in the sense that everyone can probably find some statement to be offensive or even provocative. In a world that has outlawed inconvenient truths, I would expect no less. Am I for Hitler just because I report here that he could be happy and even friendly? Am I anti-Semitic because I report that they may have limited their charitable giving to other Jews living in Germany during hard times? Am I a gay-basher because I am critical of the gay historian’s lack of tolerance for the inconvenient truth? Am I against Democrats because I include the veteran’s report of Franklin Roosevelt’s refusal to help the European Jews under German control? Am I against Trump and all his policies because I report having witnessed his enabling of violence at a rally? Such assumptions evince a lack of education, given the over-use of reason involved in taking the assumptions to be facts. Just because someone reports something does not in itself mean he or she ideologically believes in the content. For instance, that Hitler was happy visiting the kids in Hitler Youth does not mean I believe in him, his conduct, or his ideology. 
Rather, I believe that history is inadequate where inconvenient facts are omitted for ideological purposes. Admitting inconvenient truths into the history may be assumed to stem exclusively from valuing knowledge, but I think toleration must also be valued. Indeed, that truth goes beyond partiality and convenience must be held as an assumption. I am for inconvenient truths as a matter of principle as well as scholarship.

For a scholarly approach to an inconvenient truth in business ethics (as well as management), see On the Arrogance of False Entitlement, available at Amazon.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Karl Lagerfeld: An Artistic (and Marketing) Genius

Weeks after Karl Lagerfeld’s death at 85 in February, 2019, I poured over interviews that the eternally-modern yet classic Renaissance man had given. “I only answer questions,” he had said an interview in at a WWD conference in 2013. His answers provide as inside as possible a look at l’homme extradinaire.  He considered himself a fashion designer, a book publisher (regular and picture books), and a photographer, though he did much more. I’m not sure whether his books, interior designs, architecture, and photography can be considered marks of genius, but that he extended his method of fashion-design and did so well is a testament to the man’s inner-workings. His answers remind me of Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect from Wisconsin whose work so revolutionized homes from the Victorian era. Essentially, he ushered in open homes from the closed roomed Victorian houses. Lagerfeld was also innovative, taking the classic Chanel look and adding bits of modernity, such as in combining a black dress with sneakers. Both men produced homes/dresses that were inexpensive and expensive. Neither was beyond reach, yet as visionaries so far above most other people. Lagerfeld, like Wright, saw things differently than most of their respective contemporaries did. This is perhaps their shared mark of genius: not be so tied to yesterday, combined with being inspired to use creative freedom then expanding its application. This is all based in the inner constitution of the two men, which I suspect was similar. As Lagerfeld said, “I am down to earth—just not this Earth.” This is actually quite telling of genius, for such minds typically think "outside the box" and so can easily see through even societal sacred cows and thus proffer very different perspectives. The thinking, intuition and/or artistic perspective, in other words, innately go beyond the societal and individual assumptions that most people do not even realize they live by or hold. I contend that Karl Lagerfeld's artistic, or visual genius went far beyond fashion-designing.  


Regarding his creativity, Lagerfeld said that perfect work conditions permit creative freedom such that fits of inspiration can run their course like a stream unimpeded by obstacles. Working for a label need not detract. “I do the job because I enjoy it,” he said. “I love to photograph architecture,” for example. He eschewed analyzing his work. “To analyze is very unhealthy,” he said. “The worst thing in fashion . . . is the ivory tower.” So Lagerfeld’s genius did not manifest chiefly through the commonly presumed realm of reason. “I don’t listen to my voice,” he said, “I listen to my inspiration. . . . When I like something, I don’t ask myself why,” he said. “I am like a building that has an antenna; I look at everything.” His genius may have been in both how he looked at everything (i.e., from a distinct vantage-point transcending his own day) and how his inspiration was related to the raw empirical sensory data. “I’m a story teller. From a little detail a story can be made.” The underlying mechanism is difficult to describe “Most of the time, there are strange accidents.” These are innately unprogramable and therefore beyond turning into a programmed series of steps (i.e., mechanization). “I’m not an office person, you know.” Both his unique way of looking at modernity and his inspiration were clearly not easily translated by reason. Yet curiously he viewed his sketching and writing as “the same thing,” which may imply that genius is genius underneath regardless of how it manifests.
Lagerfeld also had a unique approach to work. Believing that “there is always room to improve,” he stated, “I don’t want to rest on what I’ve done; I’m only interested in what I’m doing and what I will do.” He relished being stimulated, which is undoubtedly why he was so interested in looking at what is new at the time. “I lose interest very quickly. A lack of excitement can quickly result in a change in course, “or if people think they know better than I do” or cause complications because they think they think they are professionals. People who work to justify their salary is the worst.”
Although his father was a businessman (who made his fortune from introducing dry milk to Europe), Karl felt no need to assume a business function; he left that to others. He left business to others, though he could be accused of having had an eye for marketing his collections through elaborate shows. Even so, he was not a “business type.” For instance, he said, “People are supposed to work together. If they do, “you don’t need a contract.” A business practitioner would view this, and his dictum that he only works on things he wants to work on, as highly naïve. His lack of humility might have rubbed business practitioners the wrong way. On himself as a fashion designer, he said, “Somebody might do better, but I don’t know who.” Yet interestingly, he included himself in his observation, “Things are step by step; sometimes you go back two steps, but that is a healthy thing too.” He also valued competition, which is cherished in the business world even as its practitioners seek monopolization. “Do you know something heathier than competition?” he said, “I don’t want to rest on my success.” Friends thought he got only a few hours of sleep a night. “I’m not really a party freak, ” he remarked, “I have so little time.” As he kept working so, being open to learning more about the craft and to following through on his fits of inspiration, he may have felt he had earned the right to brag. At around 80 years of age, he still said, “My problem is to show collections that are right for the moment and right for the label.” He was corporate enough to subordinate himself under Chanel even though the company had given him free artistic license, which he regarded as necessary as part of good working conditions. Ironically, in ceding some control, the company’s CEO got more loyalty and financial success from the man. How many business practitioners past their first few promotions stay so eager to push themselves to learn more and improve rather than settle in?
Finally, the unique nature of his perspective looking out at the world as it was is in the moment, rather than looking back retrospectively, shows us how utterly distinct the vantage-point of genius is. As Fredrich Nietzsche had written in the last half of the nineteenth century in Europe, a philosopher is not a man of his time. Genius, whether analytically or artistically, can easily go beyond the status quo and its underlying operative paradigm (e.g., assumptions), and yet Lagerfeld relished the excitement from looking at modernity, which he defined as that which “is right for the moment and the next moment.” Avant guard, he noted, is an antiquated, overused word. Overused, no doubt, by minds that are not able (or willing) to transcend what they take for modernity.
Even Lagerfeld’s reason for not going back over his own story is different, and thus telling. “No memoirs,” he said, “I have nothing to say, and what I could say I don’t want to say. . . . There were important people in my life but I don’t want to give them the pleasure of mentioning them again.” Bravo! Lagerfeld was interested in history, though not of his own, which he said he already knew it so why waste time going over it? Not being moored to a particular culture, present or past, he could critique it particularly well and yet go beyond it and critique a novel trend. For instance, He said of the eighties in France: “I prefer to forget about that.” The seventies, in contrast, “were not about money.” That decade had been one of freedom. “Today if you go to a party, you bring your body-guard; there are body-guards all around.” This is an astoundingly accurate observation and indictment of the increasing security consciousness gripping the urban West. Even just the increasing intimidation in the amassed security forces by businesses and police forces by universities and cities can snuff out the atmosphere of freedom that characterized European and American culture in the 1970s. Genius is out of place, yet so vital to a people ensconced in the status quo (or what has subtly entered the status quo unexamined and perhaps even uninvited).
Sadly, I was too young to partake of the hippie culture of freedom from the late 1960s to mid 1970s; my first political memory is of the Watergate congressional hearings in which then President Nixon was dropped even by his fellow Republicans on account of his law-breaking in office. That memory, plus that of OPEC-induced gasoline shortages and President Carter’s failure to return the Americans held hostage in Iran, gave a pessimistic hue to the decade to me and many other Americans. Fortunately, Europe had a different hue, as Lagerfeld would point out: Greater freedom rather than more corruption. I share his view of the 1980s as being more about money. In Reagan’s America, prosperity was the Gospel and the rich (and business schools) thrived. I’m not surprised to learn that that spread to Europe. Lagerfeld could look back at all the wealth created back in the 1980s and still say in 2013, “Many rich people of the past are poor today (relative to today’s rich).” In spite of the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing European debt crisis, the 2010s can be said to be about the super-rich and the related widening disparity in income and wealth approaching that of the Gilded Age. As for Lagerfeld on politics, he was interested in the news (and it was relevant to fashion), but he could proudly proclaim, “I never voted in any country; I am a free European.” The man who had wanted as a child to be an illustrator when he grew up had in fact grown up to pour his genius perspective into images and cultural critiques.

Source: “Interview with Bridget Foley,” The WWD Apparel and Retail CEO Summit, January 7-8, 2013.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Improving the World Cup: A Matter of Thinking Outside the Goal

Two things stood out for me in the wake of the World Cup of 2010: the sheer number of low-scoring games and the number of bad calls. The latter was the easier to fix. FIFA could have relaxed its opposition to instant replay even though it was not feasible technologically or financially for every game in the world.  The organization could have simply stated that every game in the World Cup would be subject to instant replay. The problem of low-scoring games, which has plagued other World Cup tournaments, is seemingly more intractable, but actually quite easy to solve if practicality is allowed some wiggle room in an otherwise fixed notion that the game not only should not be reformed, but also can not be changed.  
One "possible" solution would be to elongate the goal area so it is more difficult to defend.  If that doesn’t work, the area could be heightened—then it would be a matter of skill in kicking the ball in the added area above the defending players’ reach. Either way, a typical game would see more scores, thus adding excitement. 
The problem lies in the hegemony of the status quo, which takes on a life of its own especially in sports. Even though low-scoring games can be insufferingly boring, some people might object that too much scoring would become boring as well.  There would be a solution for that too, however, as the goal area could simply be retracted if it it has been set too large. 
In fact, a twenty-first century technology-driven way of approaching the problem would be to have the goal parameters movable within a game by means of a computer program that enlarges the area if there is little or no scoring and retracts it if there has been too much. Such changes would presumably only be made when the score is tied so not to disadvantage the losing side.  
 Of course, the stats-oriented fans would object to the problems terms of the consistency of records. In the case of a one-time reform of the goal-area, scoring stats would not be comparable with those before the reform. Even if the goal area is movable within a game, the scoring stats once the innovation begins would not be comparable with those before the commencement of the reform. Interesting, as every game would be under the same reform, they could be compared. 
I contend that improving the enjoyment of the game is worth the cost in terms of impaired comparisons with pre-reform tournaments and games.  Sadly, change itself, even to improve something, often faces and up-hill battle even against the sheer gravity of foregone comparisons. Strictly speaking, comparing the stats of World Cup tournaments separated by decades is not accurate, given the improvements in nutrition and targeting muscles in weight-lifting.  Perhaps the illusion of perfectly valid comparisons is the underlying hindrance. In other words, the fixity in a sport's rules and specifications may be needlessly valued. To be sure, tradition has its rightful place even in terms of practicality, but the former should not necessarily have a veto on improvements in the latter.