Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘sociology’

18 OCTOBER, 2012

One-Minute Animated Primers on Major Theories of Religion

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From Karl Marx to Richard Dawkins in 60 seconds.

Last year, Open University brought us 60-Second Adventures in Thought — a fascinating and wonderfully animated series exploring six famous philosophy thought experiments. This season, they’re back with 60-Second Adventures in Religion — four short informative yet jocular primers on some major theories of religious studies, offering a fine addition to these essential meditations on faith.

The first introduces Karl Marx and his conception of religion as a vehicle of illusory happiness and a means of oppression and social control:

The second explores religion as ritual through the work of pioneering sociologist Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte, better-known as Auguste, who — like Alain de Botton today — tried to start a secular religion based on values of charity, order, and science:

The third episode paints religion as a mother through Swiss antiquarian and Roman law professor J. J. Bachofer’s theories of matriarchy:

The final installment explores religion as a virus, a concept proposed by Richard Dawkins, who famously coined the term “meme”:

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17 OCTOBER, 2012

How the Invention of Walls Gave Rise to Eavesdropping

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A brief history of personal opacity and public space.

In Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (public library), biolinguist John L. Locke takes a fascinating look at the ubiquitous yet largely unexamined cultural phenomenon, from medieval voyeurism to Hitchcock’s Rear Window to Twitter and Facebook, by way of chimpanzee behavior and bird calls. He points to two conflicting features of eavesdropping that make it particularly interesting: On the one hand, it feeds on activity that is inherently intimate, with the “sender(s)” of the information unaware of its “receiver”; on the other hand, the information relayed is stolen by the receiver rather than donated by the sender.

But one of Locke’s most intriguing insights traces how the evolution of human civilization, and the rise of urbanization in particular, shaped the norms of — and necessity for — eavesdropping:

Our distant ancestors were secure because they could see each other at all times. They were either trusted, or did not need to be. But on the way to modernity many things happened. A sequence of factors — from sedentism and population growth to the construction of durable housing — nudged our ancestors along a path that could only lead to long periods of personal opacity. The process took many millennia but only began to seriously impact supplies of social knowledge in the last several thousand years.

When residential walls were erected, it was the beginning of truer and deeper forms of intimacy. Walls also made it difficult — and ultimately unnecessary — to look around every few seconds to see what others were doing. A human vigil, one beginning with ancestors that we share with apes, was reduced to manageable proportions, freeing up many hours of undistracted time per day. This would gradually increase opportunities to develop the kind of personal, marital, and familial relationships that we now hold dear.

At one time, the isolation-cum-privacy enabled by walls was about as welcome as incipient blindness. By blocking the eye, walls placed a premium on something that they knew very little about: trust. What was trust? Who could be trusted? With so few previous opportunities to violate trust, it was hard to tell. Predictably, suspiciousness and fear rose precipitously. If walls were to continue, more penetrant means of perception would be needed. Fortunately, a suitable cognitive mechanism was waiting in the wings.

It was eavesdropping, a term that I will use in its conventional sense to mean surreptitious observation as a technique for sampling the intimate experiences of others — whether the surveillant is peeking through a keyhole or just feigning inattention to ambient activity. But I also use the term metaphorically to represent the lifelong quest of all humans to know what is going on in the personal and private lives of others.

Nota Bene: For some bizarre reason, at the time of this writing, Amazon is selling the $35 book for $3 — grab a copy before the algorithm changes its mind.

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24 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Anaïs Nin on the Meaning of Life & the Dangers of the Internet (1946)

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“We believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people… This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us.”

Last week’s widely reverberating meditations on the meaning of life by cultural icons like Charles Bukowski, Annie Dillard, Arthur C. Clarke, and John Cage reminded me of a passage from the altogether sublime The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us this poignant reflection on why emotional excess is essential to creativity.

In an entry from May 1946, Anaïs Nin once again challenges our presentism bias by thinking deeply and timelessly about issues we tend to believe we’re brushing up against for the very first time, from the pitfalls of always-on communication technology to the pace of modern life to the venom of procrastination.

Even more interesting than the striking similarity between what Nin admonishes against and the present dynamics of the internet is the fact that she essentially describes Marshall McLuhan’s seminal concept of the global village… a decade and a half before he coined it.

The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates the vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions. This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters, meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become a rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision.

For more on Nin’s timeless insights on life, see Lisa Congdon’s stunning hand-lettered diary quotes.

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