Monthly Archives: September 2012

Consider one study by a team of researchers led by Charlan Nemeth of UC Berkeley. The researchers wanted to explore whether conflict really did play a role in generating and producing creative ideas. They assembled participants into three separate experimental conditions (minimal, brainstorming, and debate) and formed them into teams within those conditions.

Each team was tasked with generating ideas for the same challenge: how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area. Teams in the “minimal condition” were given no further instructions and told to develop as many ideas as possible. Teams in the “brainstorming condition” were given the traditional set of brainstorming rules; paramount among those rules being the notion that all judgment should be suspended and no idea criticized or debated. Teams in the final, “debate condition” were given a set of rules similar to brainstorming with one important difference: they were told to debate and criticize others’ ideas as they were generated.

When the results were calculated, the winners were clear. While teams in the “brainstorming condition” did generate more ideas than the teams given “minimal” instructions, it was the teams in the “debate condition” that outperformed the rest. Teams that debated their ideas produced an average of 25% more ideas than the other teams in the same period of time. 

Even after the teams had disbanded, the influence of debate on generating ideas continued. In follow-up interviews with each subject, researchers asked the participants if they had any more ideas for solving the traffic problem. Participants from the “minimal” and “brainstorming” conditions did have one or two more ideas, but participants in the “debate condition” gave an average of seven additional ideas. In summarizing the results of their study, Nemeth writes “Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.

Nemeth’s research, it turns out, had already been in regular practice at one company renowned for producing consistently outstanding creative work: Pixar. For the animators at Pixar, conflict and debate is part of their morning routine. Every day teams gather first thing in the morning to review their work from the previous day. They examine each frame produced in turn and criticize nearly everything about it. No detail is too small to critique and no one is prohibited from arguing against the work of someone else. Everything from the angle of the lighting to the timing of certain sound effects is brought up and fought over. This intense process, sometimes called “shredding,” can be draining, but the Pixar teams know that the process is vital to their ability to release quality work again and again.

…At Pixar, the animators have developed a technique that helps keep the fighting productive and intellectual. They call it “plussing.” As people criticize the work under review, that criticism must always contain a new idea or a suggestion for strengthening the original idea – it must contain a “plus.” Without plussing, their morning crit sessions can get pretty negative and emotionally draining. With plussing, the same meetings are imbued with a positive tone and a direct connection between criticism and newer or better ideas for their work. The meetings still feel like a fight, but they feel like the healthy, respectful fights that keep couples, creative teams, and ideas growing and changing for the better.

–David Burkus, “Why Fighting for Our Ideas Makes Them Better

I’d be interested in more details in how shredding is integrated with plussing in Pixar’s morning meetings, but very interesting techniques to generate vibrant ideas in group settings.
More generally, I feel like most people could use a bigger serving of disagreement in their lives. When I was younger, I remember being intellectually drawn to people who thought like me and agreed with what I said; as I get older, I find it is the folks I disagree with and who think differently to me that fuel my creativity and pull my ideas to their limits.
Let’s argue, baby–preferably if you can plus with me.

[The International Committee of the Red Cross] displays liberal goals but pursues them through conservative means. That is, the welfare of individuals is the highest value in its mandate, but it proceeds slowly, cautiously, with minimal objectives, and mostly on the basis of the consent of public authorities. Further, it claims to be non-political but is inherently part of humanitarian politics. It professes impartiality and neutrality, but it calculates how to advance humanitarian policies that are in competition with other policies based on national and factional advantage. (2005: 2)

–David Forsythe, The Humanitarians, p. 2

Astute observations by Forsythe on the contradictions of a fantastic organization.

I humbly hope that our attractiveness performs a subversive function. First of all, because without “us” in balaclavas, jumping all over Red Square with guitars, there is no “us” smiling sweetly in the courtroom. You can’t get the latter without the former. Second, because this attractiveness destroys the idiotic stereotype, still extant in Russia, that a feminist is an ugly-ass frustrated harridan. This stereotype is so puke-making that I will deign to be sweet for a little bit in order to destroy it. Though every time I open my mouth, the sweetness goes out the window anyway.

Nadya Tolokonnikova, in response to the question, “Does it bug you as feminists that your global popularity is at least partly based on the fact that you turned out to be, well, easy on the eyes?” (bolding added)

I got a needed smile in the midst of an otherwise somber reflection of how prison has been for Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katya Samutsevich as they serve their sentence.

To be doing feminist work everyday, to live like a feminist, you have to take women’s lives seriously. It doesn’t mean that you have to think that every woman is an angel or every woman is politically astute — that is not what feminists believe. They believe that you have got to take all kinds of women seriously or you’ll never understand women’s relationships to men, men’s relationships to each other, or men’s relationships to different forms of activism and to governments. Taking women seriously is hard to do because it means you have to listen to women whom most people don’t think of as experts or don’t think of as politically aware, including women who seem to be very domestically confined. That’s been the biggest revelation to me in becoming a feminist — to take all kinds of women seriously so I can understand the world better.

Cynthia Enloe, defining feminism (bolding added)

Take women’s lives seriously: it is simultaneously that simple and that complicated to be a feminist.

For Zipes, the influence of the fairy tale is liberating, subversive, and especially feminist. If “fairy tales came to be contested and marked as pagan, irrelevant, and unreal,” he writes, it is because they gave voice to the powerless—children, women, the poor. Indeed, Zipes shows in The Irresistible Fairy Tale that many women writers contributed to making the fairy tale a standard genre of modern literature: the very term “fairy tale” comes from the contes de fées of Madame d’Aulnoy, published in 1697 and soon translated into English. The name stuck even though most of the stories we think of as fairy tales do not contain any actual fairies: “the term’s usage was a declaration of difference and resistance,” Zipes insists. Several of his chapters deal with the contribution of women writers and artists to the renewal of the fairy-tale form, including the French film director Catherine Breillat, whose film Bluebeard Zipes discusses at length.

In seeing the fairy tale as a mode of subaltern literature, a site of resistance to elite male power and logic, however, Zipes is not exactly swimming against the tide himself. Predictably, he rails against the Disneyfication of fairy tales, lamenting that so many of us now experience Snow White and Cinderella for the first time as bowdlerised cartoons. Tangled, the recent Disney retelling of the Rapunzel story, he describes as “banal,” “inane,” and worse: “the Disney witches are stereotypical products of the Western male gaze and mass-mediated manipulation of the images of women that date back to the Christian church’s demonisation of women.”

Yet many of the new mass-media versions of fairy tales pride themselves on taking their female heroines seriously and granting them personal and even political agency. Take Snow White and the Huntsman, in which Kristen Stewart’s Snow White is less a damsel in distress than a Che Guevara figure, leading a popular uprising against an exploitative Queen. In this film, the seven dwarfs are revolutionary bandits out of Eric Hobsbawm, who turn to violence after losing their jobs as miners, and Snow White leads a cavalry charge wearing a suit of armour. Even the evil queen, played by Charlize Theron, is not a “stereotypical product of the Western male gaze”: on the contrary, the film shows us that her concern for preserving youth and beauty, while pathological, is the only way a woman can gain power in a society ruled by violent men. Seldom has the villain of a fairy tale been a more sympathetic figure.

This way of telling the Snow White story may be tendentious; but then, the modern history of the fairy tale is one of its use and abuse for ideological purposes….

What happens, though, when we approach these tales in their original state—as we find them in Grimm Tales, or Long Ago and Far Away? What if the effect of reading these stories in bulk is actually to highlight their fundamental poverty as narratives?

In fact, fairy tales have a double relationship to poverty. They are poor themselves—in motivation, imagery, description, ambiguity, complexity, everything that makes for literary interest—and they are the products of poverty. This is clear enough from their social and economic premises: they are frequently  tales of hunger and neglect and child abuse. What we remember about Hansel and Gretel is the gingerbread house and the witch in the oven, but it starts out as a portrait of starvation and infanticide: “If we don’t get rid of them, all four of us will starve,” the children’s mother says to their father. “You may as well start planing the wood for our coffins.”

The obvious object of desire, in such dire circumstances, is fabulous wealth, of the kind symbolised by and associated with royalty. That is why there is no intermediate class, in fairy tales, between paupers and kings: this is a world in which actual, gradual advancement is unthinkable, so that one can only move in imagination from the bottom of society to the top. The Grimms’ “The Fisherman and His Wife” offers a wry commentary on the insatiability of this kind of ambition. When the fisherman hooks a magic flounder and lets it go, his wife demands that he return and ask it to grant a wish. First she wishes that her shack could be a cottage, then a mansion, then a palace, then a cathedral. Finally, the wife demands to be turned into God: “I want to cause the sun and the moon to rise. I can’t bear it when I see them rising and I haven’t had anything to do with it. But if I were God, I could make it all happen.” This proves to be a wish too far, and the fish turns their cathedral back into a shack—or, as Pullman literally translates it, “a pisspot.”

More often, the fantasy of advancement works through marriage—as in Cinderella, where the abused servant wins the hand of the prince—or through the discovery of a mistaken identity—the servant turns out to be a prince in hiding. But on a more fundamental level, the object of desire in fairy tales is not just high rank, or sudden wealth, or endless food—as in Jack and the Beanstalk, which conjures a Cockaigne where “the trout, salmon, carp, and other inhabitants of the stream leaped upon the banks.”

Rather, what fairy tales obsessively conjure up is a world of mutability, in which things and people are not immured in their nature. The frog becomes a prince, the wolf becomes a grandmother, the little mermaid becomes a woman, the beast becomes a handsome man, the 12 brothers become a flock of ravens. So much of the appeal of these stories, in a preliterate, premodern culture, must have been simply in their demonstration of the power of words to defy the laws of nature. In this way, the storyteller enacts the magic powers he describes and possesses the wealth he fantasises about.

–Adam Kirsch, “Neverending stories” (bolding & ellipsing added)

In today’s edition of thisistruebutsoisthat, I wrestle with the ‘biological clock’ in women and men.

In describing her new novel, the brilliant Zadie Smith comments on how changes in women’s bodies puts them in closer touch with their mortality, in comparison to men:

I think it’s an enormous power and advantage women have, this understanding of time and mortality. It’s only a shame that we often do everything we can to abandon or deny this natural advantage. I always think of the menopause: what a gift it is to women to have, in their own bodies, this piece of time-keeping which allows them to fully understand, in their bodies, that death is coming. They’re not very good managers of time, men. Men don’t have that – you see so many men heading towards their deaths in utter shock and incomprehension because right until the final moments they thought they were going to be given some kind of reprieve. Or all those powerful men who make terrible fools of themselves in old age with girls a quarter of their age . . . They’re not very good managers of time, men. So it’s an odd thing that in my generation this female advantage has been so submerged. The menopause never spoken of among young women, hidden like a curse. Everybody trying to look and be twenty-eight forever…

Fantastic insight, speaking to the interesting cycles in women’s bodies and how they operate as timekeepers for our lives.

But then a couple of weeks ago I also read that, contrary to popular belief, men also have a fertility drop off in their 30s:

Biologically, both women and men are at ideal baby-making age years before completing a liberal arts degree, before the post-graduate malaise sets in, before they ease into staff designer or assistant editor or bartending jobs, before they select photos for their OkCupid profiles, before they register at Crate & Barrel, before they choose a broker. For men, too, the fertility drop-off begins at age 30 and accelerates at age 35. Now that thirtysomethings are the new twentysomethings and it has become an urban rule of thumb that most dudes aren’t going to opt for Park Slope parenthood much before 40, it’s time to stop associating fertility problems with just high-achieving women and dirty old men.

–Ann Friedman, “The Male Biological Clock

Not sure how to reconcile those two ideas, except that it seems that today we’re all running from death. And also, that our generation has so much to sort out whenever we ‘grow up’…

Among the brand-name French theorists of the mid-20th century, Roland Barthes was the fun one. (Foucault was the tough one, Derrida was the dreamy one, Lacan was the mysterious one — I like to imagine them sometimes as a black-turtlenecked, clove-smoking boy band called Hors de Texte, with the hit album “Discipline ’n’ Punish.”) Instead of constructing multivolume monuments of systematic thought, Barthes wrote short books built out of fragments. He was less interested in traditional coherence than in what he calledjouissance: joy, surprise, adventure, pleasure — tantric orgasms of critical insight rolling from fragment to fragment. He proclaimed the death of the author and advocated a style of reading he referred to as “writerly,” in which readers work as active creators of a text. His critical metabolism ran unusually high: he would flit from subject to subject, defining new fields of interest (semiology, narratology) only to abandon them and leave others to do the busywork. He treated canonical French works with such unorthodox flair it drove conservative professors crazy. (Barthes first rose to prominence, or notoriety, thanks to the furor surrounding his early book about Racine.) In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France — a sort of mission statement for the most prestigious academic post in the country — Barthes announced that he aspired above all to “forget” and to “unlearn” and proposed, as a kind of motto, “no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom and as much flavor as possible.

The most reliable and user-friendly source of Barthes’s special variety of fun — the bouillon cube, if you will, of his critical flavor — is his early book “Mythologies,” originally published in 1957. In it, Barthes basically invented what we think of as cultural criticism: he was the first really first-rate intellectual to tell us what our most mundane pop culture actually means…

Barthes’s basic idea (although with Barthes it’s always dangerous to reduce things to a basic idea) was that the operation of mass culture is analogous to mythology. He argued that the cultural work previously done by gods and epic sagas — teaching citizens the values of their society, providing a common language — was now being done by film stars and laundry-detergent commercials. In “Mythologies,” his project was to demystify these myths. He wrote essays about professional wrestling, celebrity weddings, soap advertisements, actors’ publicity photos, trends in children’s toys and an initiative by the president of France to get citizens to drink more milk. He wrote an essay about Greta Garbo’s face. (“The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event.”) He wrote an essay about Billy Graham, who had come to preach in Paris. (“If God is really speaking through Dr. Graham’s mouth, it must be acknowledged that God is quite stupid.”) He wrote about plastic. (“It is the first magical substance which consents to be prosaic.”)

…The most basic lesson of “Mythologies” is that everything means something, especially things that try to seem beyond meaning. “In a single day,” Barthes writes toward the end of the book, “how many really nonsignifying fields do we cross? Very few, sometimes none. Here I am, before the sea; it is true that it bears no message. But on the beach, what material for semiology! Flags, slogans, signals, signboards, clothes, suntan even, which are so many messages to me.” (He was the Walt Whitman of critical theory.)

If 21st-century culture has embraced any of Barthes’s lessons, it is this one. What is the blogosphere if not a Petri dish of amateur semiology — the decoding of everything?

This also suggests, however, one of the major differences between postmillennial America and 1950s France. Barthes was writing at the dawn of what we think of as mass culture: a time when the average citizen’s relationship to images was changing rapidly, when the texts people shared were suddenly not just religious or civic or local but global: a common set of images drawn from commercial entertainment.

The dawn of that kind of culture has obviously long since passed. We now live at least in its late afternoon, possibly even its twilight. The Internet, notoriously, came along and broke the old model’s kneecaps. Instead of just passively absorbing a series of broadcasts from Planet Media, consumers today participate directly in the creation of culture.

To my mind, the thing that’s exploding into relevance in our era is not mass culture but the critique of mass culture — the Barthesian dissection of everything, no matter how trivial. This happens everywhere now, often in real time. And this critical analysis is often as vital and interesting and consumable as the culture it discusses. Consider, for instance, the way the TV recap has evolved into a nearly independent creative form. So the critical analysis of pop culture has itself become a kind of pop culture. We seem to be approaching some kind of singularity — a collapse of creativity and criticism into one.

My favorite moments in the book are those in which Barthes seems moved by, and invested in, the culture he discusses: when he writes, for instance, about professional wrestling as a spectacle of justice, and seems to be defending it against reflexive and shallow criticism. In Barthes’s posthumously published book “Mourning Diary” — a collection of the notes he made after the death of his mother in 1977, 20 years after “Mythologies” — there is an especially poignant moment. Barthes admits to breaking down in tears when he hears a song by Gérard Souzay, a singer he once dismissed in “Mythologies” as the epitome of melodramatic bourgeois art. In this moment of contradiction, he seems very modern, and fully Barthesian.

–Sam Andersen, “How Roland Barthes Gave Us the TV Recap