Brain Pickings

Man Meets Woman: Minimalist Pictogram Commentary on Gender Norms

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From breakups to bonuses to bathroom breaks, infographic distillation of the truths and fictions behind stereotypes.

“It’s a special kind of privilege to be born into the body you wanted, to embrace the essence of your gender even as you recognize what you are up against,” a wise young woman wrote. And yet, as Margaret Mead knew and Shonda Rhimes attested, what one is up against might often eclipse any appreciation of that privilege — especially in a culture where unconscious biases run rampant even among the best-intentioned of us.

In 2009, Chinese-born German graphic designer Yang Liu explored cultural differences in minimalist pictogram infographics. Five years later, she returns with Man meets Woman (public library) — a romp through the challenges of communication between the sexes and the cultural baggage of gender models, a contemporary caricature that reads like the modern-day, grownup version of the 1970 satirical gem I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl!

The stereotypical roles and exchanges Liu depicts are sometimes funny because they’re true, sometimes offensive because they’re true, but mostly tragic (not even tragicomic) because they’re false and limiting and toxic, and yet persist anyway — the peril of all stereotypes.

Liu writes:

We are living in an age of constant social change, in which the subject of the sexes … is rapidly evolving in people’s consciousness. Each generation re-assesses and questions the role models currently in place…

It is interesting to see how Man/Woman clichés have indeed changed in our daily lives and to what extent the attributes that were assigned to the sexes in the past, often centuries ago, are still relevant in today’s society. And to consider which desirable role models are already rooted in our thinking but are still in the process of transformation.

While the book is primarily focused on heterosexual gender norms, Liu does offer a few funny and poignant diptychs about LGBT relationships and the presence of gay and lesbian couples in pop culture:

Complement Man meets Woman with Susan Sontag on how stereotypes imprison us, a wonderful proto-feminist children’s book from 1935, and a pause-giving French short film about sexism, then revisit this excellent and urgently necessary read on our unconscious biases.

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Italo Calvino on the Unbearable Lightness of Language, Literature, and Life

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“The idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well.”

One of the most influential and widely beloved authors of the twentieth century, Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923–September 19, 1985) was not only a sage of writing but also a man of piercing insight into such subtleties of existence as the art of asserting oneself with grace, the paradox of America, distraction and procrastination, the trick to lowering one’s “worryability,” and the meaning of life. Calvino was offered the 1985–1986 term of the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard — an annual lectureship held by such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Aaron Copland, E.E. Cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, and Umberto Eco. (Alas, not unlike the Gifford Lectures, the series has remained a lamentable boys’ club — only three women have held the position since its inception in 1925.)

Calvino died weeks before he was scheduled to depart for Harvard to deliver his Norton lectures. But working on them, his wife recalls, was the obsession of his final months. His manuscripts for them, in which Calvino looks back on “the millennium of the book” and peers forward into what the future might hold for “the expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities” of language and literature, were his last legacy. Eventually published as Six Memos for the Next Millennium (public library | IndieBound) in 1988, his final insights — prescient, profound, immeasurably perceptive — are perhaps even more relevant today, well into the new millennium Calvino didn’t live to see, when some of our gravest fears and some of our greatest hopes for the written word have borne out.

In the foreword, Calvino considers what books alone can give us and writes:

Perhaps it is a sign of our millennium’s end that we frequently wonder what will happen to literature and books in the so-called postindustrial era of technology. I don’t much feel like indulging in this sort of speculation. My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it.

He sets out to outline six such things, beginning with Lightness — perhaps the most poetic and delicate of all. Looking back on his own career spanning forty years of writing fiction, Calvino observes:

My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language… I have come to consider lightness a value rather than a defect.

Noting that “it is hard for a novelist to give examples of his idea of lightness from the events of everyday life, without making them the unattainable object of an endless quête,” he points to Milan Kundera’s cult-classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being as an exquisite example of accomplishing this feat with “great clarity and immediacy”:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is in reality a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living, not only in the situation of desperate and all-pervading oppression that has been the fate of his hapless country, but in a human condition common to us all, however infinitely more fortunate we may be. For Kundera the weight of living consists chiefly in constriction, in the dense net of public and private constrictions that enfolds us more and more closely. His novel shows us how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight. Perhaps only the liveliness and mobility of the intelligence escape this sentence — the very qualities with which this novel is written, and which belong to a world quite different from the one we live in.

Calvino examines the value of lightness in shifting our perspective and making life’s burdens bearable:

Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future…

In a particularly poignant passage — especially in light of today’s renewed efforts to bridge the toxic, unnatural rift between the sciences and the humanities — Calvino extols the imaginative possibilities of science as a muse to literature and a conduit to lightness:

If literature is not enough to assure me that I am not just chasing dreams, I look to science to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears. Today every branch of science seems intent on demonstrating that the world is supported by the most minute entities, such as the messages of DNA, the impulses of neurons, and quarks, and neutrinos wandering through space since the beginning of time…

Writing in 1985, before most of the seminal ideas that shaped the modern web even existed, Calvino adds:

Then we have computer science. It is true that software cannot exercise its powers of lightness except through the weight of hardware. But it is software that gives the orders, acting on the outside world and on machines that exist only as functions of software and evolve so that they can work out ever more complex programs. The second industrial revolution, unlike the first, does not present us with such crushing images as rolling mills and molten steel, but with “bits” in a flow of information traveling along circuits in the form of electronic impulses. The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits.

But rather than a fanciful aside, Calvino argues that this fascination with science in exploring lightness connects directly “with a very old thread in the history of poetry.” He points to another sublime example of lightness in Lucretius’s seminal Epicurean text The Nature of Things, which Calvino calls “the first great work of poetry in which knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world, leading to a perception of all that is infinitely minute, light, and mobile”:

Lucretius set out to write the poem of physical matter, but he warns us at the outset that this matter is made up of invisible particles. He is the poet of physical concreteness, viewed in its permanent and immutable substance, but the first thing he tells us is that emptiness is just as concrete as solid bodies. Lucretius’ chief concern is to prevent the weight of matter from crushing us. Even while laying down the rigorous mechanical laws that determine every event, he feels the need to allow atoms to make unpredictable deviations from the straight line, thereby ensuring freedom both to atoms and to human beings. The poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities — even the poetry of nothingness — issues from a poet who had no doubts whatever about the physical reality of the world.

He finds a parallel example in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

For Ovid, too, everything can be transformed into something else, and knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world. And also for him there is an essential parity between everything that exists, as opposed to any sort of hierarchy of powers or values. If the world of Lucretius is composed of immutable atoms, Ovid’s world is made up of the qualities, attributes and forms that define the variety of things, whether plants, animals, or persons. But these are only the outward appearances of a single common substance that—if stirred by profound emotion—may be changed into what most differs from it.

For both of these ancient writers, Calvino argues, “lightness is a way of looking at the world based on philosophy and science,” but also “something arising from the writing itself, from the poet’s own linguistic power, quite independent of whatever philosophic doctrine the poet claims to be following.” Shakespeare, he later adds, “recognized subtle forces connecting macrocosm and microcosm.” And therein lies the paradoxical yet reconciliatory essence of lightness:

There is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.

With this lens, Calvino gazes into the new millennium — our millennium — in which such thoughtful lightness appears all the more urgently needed, all the more singularly capable of quenching a deep longing for meaning. Calvino writes:

Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times — noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring — belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.

[…]

A theme by no means “light,” such as the sufferings of love, is dissolved into impalpable entities that move between sensitive soul and intellective soul, between heart and mind, between eyes and voice.

A masterful application of lightness, Calvino adds, is marked by three key characteristics:

  1. it is to the highest degree light;
  2. it is in motion;
  3. it is a vector of information.

With this, he offers an eloquent and enchanting formulation of how the artful application of lightness ennobles language, literature, and human life:

The idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well. So, too, we would be unable to appreciate the lightness of language if we could not appreciate language that has some weight to it.

We might say that throughout the centuries two opposite tendencies have competed in literature: one tries to make language into a weightless element that hovers above things like a cloud or better, perhaps, the finest dust or, better still, a field of magnetic impulses. The other tries to give language the weight, density, and concreteness of things, bodies, and sensations.

Noting that the concept “goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard,” he enumerates the three important senses of lightness:

  1. There is a lightening of language whereby meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarefied consistency…
  2. There is the narration of a train of thought or psychological process in which subtle and imperceptible elements are at work, or any kind of description that involves a high degree of abstraction…
  3. There is a visual image of lightness that acquires emblematic value… Some literary inventions are impressed on our memories by their verbal implications rather than by their actual words.

Calvino concludes by considering the ultimate value of lightness, not only in literature but in making sense of the existential:

Literature [is] an existential function, the search for lightness [is] a reaction to the weight of living.

[…]

I am accustomed to consider literature a search for knowledge. In order to move onto existential ground, I have to think of literature as extended to anthropology and ethnology and mythology. Faced with the precarious existence of tribal life — drought, sickness, evil influences — the shaman responded by ridding his body of weight and flying to another world, another level of perception, where he could find the strength to change the face of reality. In centuries and civilizations closer to us, in villages where the women bore most of the weight of a constricted life, witches flew by night on broomsticks or even on lighter vehicles such as ears of wheat or pieces of straw. Before being codified by the Inquisition, these visions were part of the folk imagination, or we might even say of lived experience. I find it a steady feature in anthropology, this link between the levitation desired and the privation actually suffered. It is this anthropological device that literature perpetuates.

[…]

I think that the deepest rationality behind every literary operation has to be sought out in the anthropological needs to which it corresponds.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium is a wonderful read in its entirety and Calvino’s exploration of the remaining subjects — Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity, as Calvino died before completing the sixth lecture — are equally elevating. Complement it with Calvino on writing, Hemingway, and the two types of writers.

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Hannah Arendt on Memory, the Elasticity of Time, and What Free Will Really Means

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“Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on, we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration.”

Since 1888, the annual Gifford Lectures series has aimed “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term” by bringing together influential thinkers across science, philosophy, and spirituality — luminaries like William James, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Carl Sagan (whose 1985 lecture was later published as the fantastic posthumous volume Varieties of Scientific Experience). But for nearly a century, the Gifford Lectures remained a bona fide boys’ club. It wasn’t until 1973 that German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) became the first woman to speak at the prestigious event. Her exquisite lecture was later expanded and published as The Life of the Mind (public library) — an intensely intelligent and stimulating exploration of such seemingly simple, immeasurably complex questions as how we think, why our inner lives eclipse the world of appearances, and what it really means to live with freedom.

The volume is divided into two parts: the first, titled Thinking, explores the crucial difference between truth and meaning; the second, Willing, is an investigation of “the nature of the willing capability and its function in the life of the mind” — in other words, that eternal question of what it means to have free will in a universe of fixed laws.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Through the lens of free will, Arendt defines willed acts as “acts about which I know that I could as well have left them undone.” But before we can begin to untangle why we do what we do, we must first understand how we know what we know. Arendt writes:

Not sense perception, in which we experience things directly and close at hand, but imagination, coming after it, prepares the objects of our thought. Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on, we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration. Furthermore, we must repeat the direct experience in our minds after leaving the scene where it took place. To say it again, every thought is an after-thought. By repeating in imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.

For the Ancient Greeks, Arendt points out, this notion was built into their very vocabulary — eidenai, “to know,” is derived from idein, “to see,” thus implying that knowing is having seen. But this is where the Greeks lead us astray in the question of free will. Arendt argues that Socrates, Plato, and even Aristotle (whom she anoints, not without reason, “the most sober of the great thinkers”), didn’t seem to be even aware of the notion of the Will, particularly “as an organ for the future, as memory is an organ for the past” — and yet that’s precisely what it is. Arendt considers the crucial role of time — that astoundingly elastic concept — and memory — that centerpiece of human creativity — in understanding free will from the perspective of the thinking ego:

Memory, the mind’s power of having present what is irrevocably past and thus absent from the senses, has always been the most plausible paradigmatic example of the mind’s power to make invisibles present. By virtue of this power, the mind seems to be even stronger than reality; it pits its strength against the inherent futility of everything that is subject to change; it collects and re-collects what otherwise would be doomed to ruin and oblivion. The time region in which this salvage takes place is the Present of the thinking ego, a kind of lasting “todayness” … the “standing now” (nunc stans) of medieval meditation, an “enduring present” ([Henri] Bergson’s présent qui dure), or “the gap between past and future,” as we called it in explicating Kafka’s time parable. But only if we accept the medieval interpretation of that time experience as an intimation of divine eternity are we forced to conclude that not just spatiality but also temporality is provisionally suspended in mental activities. Such an interpretation shrouds our whole mental life in an aura of mysticism and strangely overlooks the very ordinariness of the experience itself.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Instead, Arendt argues by quoting from Nobel laureate Henri Bergson’s indispensable The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, the dynamic interaction that constitutes our experience of the present is anything but mystical:

The constitution of an “enduring present” is “the habitual, normal, banal act of our intellect,” performed in every kind of reflection, whether its subject matter is ordinary day-to-day occurrences or whether the attention is focused on things forever invisible and outside the sphere of human power. The activity of the mind always creates for itself un présent qui dure, a “gap between past and future.”

[…]

The chain of “nows” rolls on relentlessly, so that the present is understood as precariously binding past and future together: the moment we try to pin it down, it is either a “no more” or a “not yet.” From that perspective, the enduring present looks like an extended “now” — a contradiction in terms — as though the thinking ego were capable of stretching the moment out and thus producing a kind of spatial habitat for itself. But this seeming spatiality of a temporal phenomenon is an error, caused by the metaphors we traditionally use in terminology dealing with the phenomenon of Time.

The Histomap by John Sparks (1931) from 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for details.

The reason we tend to make sense of time using spatial metaphors and visual maps, Arendt argues, is fairly obvious — in our everyday life, we need measurements of time and can only measure it using spatial distances. Even the notion of temporal succession suggests a linearity, and a line is essentially extended space. And yet this impulse to make the invisible visible is precisely where the problem of free will arises:

The Will, if it exists at all — and an uncomfortably large number of great philosophers who never doubted the existence of reason or mind held that the Will was nothing but an illusion — is as obviously our mental organ for the future as memory is our mental organ for the past. (The strange ambivalence of the English language, in which “will” as an auxiliary designates the future whereas the verb “to will” indicates volitions, properly speaking, testifies to our uncertainties in these matters.) In our context, the basic trouble with the Will is that it deals not merely with things that are absent from the senses and need to be made present through the mind’s power of re-presentation, but with things, visibles and invisibles, that have never existed at all.

The conundrum is deepened by our essential discomfort with uncertainty even though uncertainty is how we come to know ourselves and the world, and perhaps most of all by our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change. Arendt probes the paradox:

The moment we turn our mind to the future, we are no longer concerned with “objects” but with projects, and it is not decisive whether they are formed spontaneously or as anticipated reactions to future circumstances. And just as the past always presents itself to the mind in the guise of certainty, the future’s main characteristic is its basic uncertainty, no matter how high a degree of probability prediction may attain. In other words, we are dealing with matters that never were, that are not yet, and that may well never be. Our Last Will and Testament, providing for the only future of which we can be reasonably certain, namely our own death, shows that the Will’s need to will is no less strong than Reason’s need to think; in both instances the mind transcends its own natural limitations, either by asking unanswerable questions or by projecting itself into a future which, for the willing subject, will never be.

In a framing that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful meditation on reading and writing“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.” — Arendt revisits the Ancient Greeks’ paltry understanding of free will through their relationship with time:

The human product, this “compound of matter and form” — for instance, a house made of wood according to a form pre-existing in the craftsman’s mind (rums) — clearly was not made out of nothing, and so was understood by Aristotle to pre-exist “potentially” before it was actualized by human hands. This notion was derived from the mode of being peculiar to the nature of living things, where everything that appears grows out of something that contains the finished product potentially, as the oak exists potentially in the acorn and the animal in the semen.

The view that everything real must be preceded by a potentiality as one of its causes implicitly denies the future as an authentic tense: the future is nothing but a consequence of the past, and the difference between natural and man-made things is merely between those whose potentialities necessarily grow into actualities and those that may or may not be actualized.

Under these circumstances, any notion of the Will as an organ for the future, as memory is an organ for the past, was entirely superfluous; Aristotle did not have to be aware of the Will’s existence.

Discus chronologicus (1720s) from Cartographies of Time. Click image for details.

What made the contemplation of free will inevitable, Arendt argues, was a reframing of time not as a linear but as a cyclical concept, something that occurred in parallel in various ancient cultures:

No matter what historical origins and influences — Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian — we may be able to trace for the cyclical time concept, its emergence was logically almost inevitable once the philosophers had discovered an everlasting Being, birthless and deathless, within whose framework they then had to explain movement, change, the constant coming and going of living beings.

In the remainder of the essay, Arendt goes on to trace how our evolving relationship with time changed our understanding of free will across human history, from medieval mysticism to the Hebrew-Christian credo to Nietzsche — just one of the innumerable threads of genius that make The Life of the Mind a necessary read for every thinking human. Sample it further with Arendt on the difference between thinking and knowing, then revisit her increasingly timely reflection on how bureaucracy fuels violence.

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