McDonald’s, or the irrationality of rationality

mcdon

For anyone interested in the intricacies of contemporary society from the perspective of such an ubiquitous  institution as the fast food outlet McDonald’s, George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society (Pine Forge Press, 2000) is a must read. This is not a treatise against fast food outlets, nor is it a simple acceptance of them. The book  endeavours to account for the hold fast food outlets (and other institutions) have on society as well as provide possible ways out of this hold. The slender volume fulfills the former aim more successfully than the latter.

Ritzer suggests that there are four main dimensions which underpin McDonald’s business acumen: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology. Efficiency basically means “the optimum method for getting from one point to another” (p. 12). Calculability subsumes such notions as “the quantitative aspects of … portion size, cost… and services”, where “quantity has become equivalent to quality” (p. 12). Predictability is “the assurance that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales” for both clients and workers (p. 13).  Control through nonhuman technology includes, among others, quickly moving customer lines at the counter, limited menus, few options, uncomfortable seats, in addition to precise directives for the workers to behave and to accomplish their roles. The four dimensions then form what Ritzer termed McDonaldization, a process found in all human for-profit institutions. He gives specific examples as this process relates to universities, hospitals, sports and other recreational activities,

Clearly, and very generally, there are advantages and disadvantages to these four dimensions: advantages point to profit-making and customer satisfaction to a certain extent; disadvantages to workers’ and customers’ personal preferences, food safety and quality. Ritzer’s critique is based on the fact that it is impossible to go back to “the world, if it ever existed, of home-cooked meals, traditional restaurant dinners, high-quality foods, meals loaded with surprises, and restaurants run by chefs free to express their creativity.” (p. 18). For him, it is more valid to critically analyze McDonaldization from the perspective of the future. Although he admits that McDonaldization is both enabling and constraining, his stance in the book focuses on the constraints this type of business system brings to human society.

Ritzer uses Max Weber’s theory of rationalization, claiming that McDonaldization is an amplification and an extension of this theory. (p. 23) According to Weber, formal rationality is a process by which optimum means to a given end are shaped by rules, regulations, and larger social structures, often resulting in irrational outcomes (among the examples given are ClubMed and the Holocaust). The means constrain humans to act according to a predetermined set of procedures and allow for little or no choice. However, humans are rarely content with being constrained: they prefer to make their own choices, so the irrationality of rationality closes them in an iron cage of scientific management. Ritzer describes McDonaldization in detail as it is clearly followed in automotive assembly lines, Levittown type of construction, shopping centers, and McDonald’s. The bulk of the bulk is devoted to an exemplification and critique of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology., especially focusing on the following settings: higher education, entertainment industry (amusement parks, sport TV programs, etc.), health care, fast food industry, food industry. Chapter 7, “The Irrationality of Rationality”, evaluates the design flaws of rationality from the perspective of the loss of magic and mystery, inefficiency, illusion of good value at a good price, false friendliness, environmental hazards, homogeneization, dehumanization. The next chapter goes beyond present-day practices and looks toward the future by giving McDonaldization  “an inexorable quality, multiplying and extending continuously” (p. 146), from birth of an individual to death and beyond.  The last two chapters show the driving forces pushing McDonaldization along: “It pays, we value it, it fits” (p. 168) and a practical guide to dealing with this inexorable process, listing some of the suggestions for breaking the imposed “rules”, such as valuing quality (not quantity), B&Bs (rather than hotel chains), slow food, local produce and products, avoiding routines, do things for yourself, never buy artificial products, etc. In one of the last paragraphs, Ritzer justifies the writing of this book as follows:

      Although I have emphasized the irresistibility of McDonaldization throughout this       book, my fondest hope is that I am wrong. Indeed, a major motivation behind this book is to alert readers to the dangers of McDonaldization and to motivate them to act to stem its tide. I hope that people can resist McDonaldization and create instead a more reasonable, more human world. (p. 232)

In conclusion, Ritzer’s account and critique of McDonaldization point to the cage of every “modern” human being. His attempt to stem the tide of rationalization may work for a while, but then it is inevitable that profit wins over any other consideration. What is more disheartening is the fact that both McDonaldization (the irrationality of rationality) in conjunction with the absurd  rush for technological innovation at all cost deny a less forceful development of the future human being. The book evaluates the notions that many have had about the modern world, such as fear of unpredictability (and the concomitant drive to organization: ClubMed web site claims that it “organizes unforgettable events”), the burden is on the user (customers, patients, students do work formerly done by paid employees as part of efficiency). While Ritzer delves into activities and institutions such as home cooking, shopping, higher education, health care, entertainment (all-inclusive trips, TV programs, sports, political debates),  his analysis does not touch upon the workings of politics (exemplified by state/national governments – although he analyzes the irrational dealings of the tax offices), nor the advances in the military. It seems that governments and the military complex are either immune to McDonaldization and/or support it wholeheartedly for the citizens of the world. Another question which remains unanswered for me is this: Can search for a more equitable, peaceful and tranquil human life be McDonaldized? If the answer is yes, there is no escaping the rationality cage; if not, whose duty is to keep searching?

 

 

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Millennia of collective dreams shattered

pilgrim

Timothy Findley’s novel Pilgrim (Harper Perennial Canada, 1999) has all the characteristics of a grand gesture, encompassing historical and fictional characters, psychology and art history, sexuality and sainthood, all in the direction of questions rather than answers.  The narration follows Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist, while he deals with Mr. Pilgrim, a patient at the clinic for mentally ill patients. Pilgrim claims not only that he has lived numerous previous lives, but that he cannot die, having unsuccessfully attempted suicide a number of times. Pilgrim’s letters, interviews, diaries give us glimpses of Jung’s work with this patient who was an art historian by profession. Jung’s own growing demons of depression, his insight into collective unconscious, his attempts to help the inmates of the hospital by trying to understand their fixations and going along with their obsessions weave together a complex and heavy blanket of pessimism which covers human history. The novel’s multifaceted narration gives many characters a full treatment on account of their relationship to Jung and/or to Pilgrim, and  they receive detailed descriptions of their past, their amusements and dislikes, substantially enriching the plot. In what follows, three themes have been chosen to illustrate Findley’s craftsmanship: 1) the role of art in human experience; 2) the nature of relationship; 3) the meaning of madness. These exemplify some of the novel’s preoccupations, but, above all, they shed light on the most perplexing, contradictory and unexplainable characteristics of human behaviour, violence.

  1. The role of art in human experience

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the stained-glass window Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere of the Chartres Cathedral play a crucial role in the construction of  Pilgrim’s past lives: in fact, he asserts that one of his previous lives he lived as Elisabetta Gherardini (Madonna Elisabetta del Giocondo), whose first encounter with Da Vinci ended with her being raped by him. The other meetings resulted in her portrait being painted (the painting which is now known as Mona Lisa). Findley’s description of Pilgrim’s experiences as a strong and decisive woman and Vinci’s violence add to Pilgrim’s sense of doom. In another life (the word incarnation is not preferred), Pilgrim lived as the stain-glass worker who actually put together the stained glass Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, with its beautiful blue hues. According to Pilgrim, this life was one of the most satisfying, as he remembers the hard work with his hands but also the gratification received from the final work. This particular area of the Cathedral was the only one which survived the great fire of 1194. Clearly, these two examples (Mona Lisa and the stained-glass work) show that there are hidden complexities behind any artistic product. But that is not all: Pilgrim questions whether art is really useful in transforming human experience and behaviour, which for him are full of injustices, violence, and abuse. In a letter, Pilgrim writes:

Looking back, I am sorry I was ever the advocate of any form of art – but music is the worst of them. … Bach and Mozart indeed! Bach inevitably makes me think of fish in a barrel! Round and round and round they go and nothing ever happens. Nothing! … As for Mozart, his emotions did not mature beyond the age of twelve. He never even achieved  adolescence, let alone puberty. … Beethoven – pompous; Chopin – sickly sweet and given to tantrums… And Wagner – a self-centered bore.  And this young Turk Stravinsky – the name says it all: discordant, rude and blows his music through his nose!                                                      There.                                                                                                                                                 Shall I go on?                                                                                                                          Literature. Will it put an end to war? War and Peace itself is nothing better than enticement to create new battlefields. […] Tolstoy himself was a soldier at Sevastopol and gloried in it – then he pretends to hate it – after which he ends his life as a mad proponent of world peace, for God’s sake, while he drives his wife away from his death bed. And I am crazy? Me?                                                                                                                                           Yes. So they tell me. (p. 437-438)

The question, then, is whether art is capable of putting an end to war. The answer is evident. And yet, Pilgrim insists on certain upper-class style of the good life, and he is not adverse to enjoying beautiful views. All is not gloom, perhaps only up to the very end when it is Pilgrim’s desire to destroy the painting and the stained-glass window.

2. The nature of relationships: human to human, human to god(s)

In one of the previous lives, Pilgrim was admitted into to circle of Oscar Wild’s lovers and admirers, taking a stance against those who would vilify Wild’s homosexuality, such as Whistler.

Jung’s relationship with his wife Emma comes to a sour point after Emma discovers his infidelity to her with an ex-patient of his, Toni (the second one Emma is aware of). The important consideration is that Emma has a different take on marriage from the opinion Jung expresses about it. She saw herself as his companion, researcher, mother of his children, and he was the light of her life. After her discovery, she still loves him, but does not like him any longer; they do not share the matrimonial bed and they do not spend time with their children together. To Freud, Carl Gustav expresses his idea that extra-marital relationships are crucial for a good marriage. Jung continues his relationship with Toni without regard to Emma’s feelings.

Doctor/nurse to patient rapport in the clinic clearly reflects the superiority of the medical staff who hold the keys to the mental patients’ real and metaphorical cages.

But the most intriguing liaison is between humans and their god(s): according to Pilgrim, humans, having abandoned their gods, cling to the one who does not see.

3. The meaning of madness

Pilgrim believes that he cannot die, that his previous lives are real and that he can account for them: he was in Troy during the war, at Chartres during the construction of the Cathedral, in Florence with Da Vinci, in Avila with Teresa (not yet saint),  in London with Oscar Wilde; he lived as a man and as a woman; as a beautiful rich woman (Madonna del Giocondo), and as a poor cripple shepherd Manolo, as a dandy in London. He does not remember any of his lives before the age of 18 (i.e. childhood is not accounted for). At the outset, Jung does not believe that anyone can have such detailed recollections of particular previous lives, a belief which inches him closer to elaborating his idea of collective unconscious.

Teresa of Avila, as all saints, showed abnormal behaviour, and surely her acting would have made her end up in an asylum in the early 1900s. Findley’s description of her quest is thought-provoking:

This was the pattern of Teresa’s beliefs. To find the Holy Grail, to sail with the great explorers to America and the Orient, to climb through the sky to find the Almighty or to dig through the earth and drag the Devil into the light of day.  She read poetry. She read novels. She dressed as Queen Isabella.  She affected the robes of the Carmelites. She experimented with theatrical, even whorish cosmetics – and had once dyed her hair with henna. But the discovery of self had not so much to do with one’s destination as with one’s capacity to achieve it. Clearly, for Teresa de Cepeda, God was at the far end of all these dreamings – but could one reach Him? (p. 340)

So what is madness exactly? Luigi Pirandello’s dictum and the title of one of his plays, Così è, se vi pare (“It is so if you think so/ Right you are if you think so”) gives an indication of the complexity of human psychological networks which the novel describes in such detail: each character has certain beliefs about herself/himself which are rarely reflected in the opinions of others. Jung’s strategy is to “indulge” in the beliefs of his patients by attempting to understand their view of themselves. But this is a vicious circle, since even he makes a cage for himself (he is right if he believes in his convictions) and he lives in it accordingly, all the more so when he persists in his own certainties. Findley’s philosophical stance in this novel, therefore, can be described as Pirandellian, since the characters do not believe each other’s certainties. Granted, Pilgrim is condemned on account of his sacrilege having seen the mating of the Sacred Serpents (yet another imaginary human invention).

In conclusion, at the core of all of Findley’s naturalistic descriptions of various settings and the in-depth treatment of each character is the quest for the value of literature in human lives. This art form does not prevent humans from unthinkable violence, but it points to another, more profound direction, that of imagination. If we invented our god(s), the invention itself is not enough. We have to abide by this creation. In Pilgrim’s words,

No wonder the gods are departing, he thought. We have driven them away. Once, every tree out there was holy – every tree and every strand of grass and clod of earth. The very stones were holy and everything that lived, no matter how small or large…every elephant and every ant – every man and every woman. All were holy. Everything – the sea – the sky – the sun – the moon – the wind – the rain – the fairest and the worst of days. … All of it gone and only one deaf God, who cannot see, remains – claiming all of creation as His own. If people would invest one hundredth of their devotion to this God on the living brothers and sisters amongst whom they stand, we might have a chance of surviving one another. As it is…       (p. 479.)

Both Pilgrim and Jung had dream premonitions of the coming of the Great War. This is where Findley’s novel’s ends: in pessimism.

It could be argued that perhaps it is time to work on a different creation by our psyche, one that for sure will not allow the atrocities that continue those of the 20th century. Alternatively, we are condemned to the cage of our collective unconscious, yet knowing this does not alter our behaviour.

 

Fondness for and frustration with Dr. Pereira

It is a sure sign of a great writer when the reader’s heart is filled with fondness for a character just from the first 15 sentences or so of terse yet rich description. This is precisely what happened to me while reading the first page of Antonio Tabucchi’s  novel Sostiene Pereira (Feltrinelli, 1994; translated into English as either  Pereira Maintans or Pereira Declares – none of which I like, but that’s another story; I would have opted for Pereira’s Testimony). Some examples of Pereira’s being lovable are these: he converses with the photo of his departed wife (and therefore he brings this photo with him when he travels); as a good Catholic, he believes in the soul but does not believe in  the resurrection of the body since he is rather heavy and does not see the need to resurrect the “lard and sweat and all the breathlessness going up the stairs”. Furthermore, he does not create problems for others, he keeps to himself and that makes him lonely – but he never complains of loneliness. Above all,  there is more: as the novel progresses, the fondness for him becomes accompanied by stronger and stronger frustration. Why does he act as he does? What are his unspoken motives?  So at the end,  after closing the last page, I am left with a mountain of unresolved issues which surround the lovable yet aggravating Dr. Pereira.

sostienepereira

There is no doubt that the novel deals with some of the most troublesome problems facing (not only) Portugal in 1938: violence, police brutality, citizen apathy, political upheaval. It is small wonder that Dr. Pereira has death on his mind: but death for him is a philosophical matter, and linked to literature  through the passing of important literary figures. As the editor of the cultural page of a literary magazine, he wants to be prepared for deaths of famous poets, philosophers, novelists and he engages an unknown young man Monteiro Rossi to write obituaries, both in the form of anniversaries of death and of notices of passing.  The hold Monteiro Rossi has on Pereira is inexplicable (is it because if Pereira had had a son, he would have been of the same age?), and in terms of the plot development, the least tangible and most frustrating element. This young man, it turns out, brings complete upheaval into Pereira’s life, as well as a concrete and real presence of death. Pereira ends up doing what he knows how to do best: he writes the account of police brutality which would have surely gotten him arrested, and he leaves Portugal presumably for France.

Three ideas keep surfacing in my mind which Sostiene Pereira forefronts but really does not come to terms with. They are the following:

  1. Who is a hero? What is a hero? It could be surmised that by having his damning testimony of police brutality published, Pereira is a hero of sorts: his words are available for people to read, but his readership is minimal, so his verbal effort surely does not bring down the corrupt and hated political system.
  2. Is the pen mightier than the sword? It could be argued that the repressive political system is dead, but Pereira’s written testimony lives on. However, it is obvious that other repressive systems thrive, other abuses of power come to the surface, other types of violence are born. The final judgment as to the greater mightiness of the pen or the sword is still to be made.
  3. What is fiction good for? I heard some author state that “All fiction is a lie.” This statement is blatantly not true, as you cannot prove that Pereira lied in his testimony, that his life is a lie, that this journal article is a lie, etc. etc. Others say that fiction makes us more in tune with, more caring about our fellow beings, human or not. Still others claim that fiction helps us forget our sorrows and transports us to other realms where we forget our troubles. Rater than closing ourselves within a created world, it is more likely that this imaginary world allows us to open up to other possibilities and other lives, not to make ours more palatable, but to make it richer. I am grateful to Dr. Pereira for doing this for me and to Tabucchi for creatively elaborating a real flesh and blood journalist’s life.

There are many fictional protagonists for whom I feel a strong fondness, and there are others who swell up seas of frustration for me, but very few imaginary characters combine both fondness and frustration in a way that Pereira does.

Food and (Italian) science fiction, or where are the transhumanist sources of energy?

Some years back, in Toronto, during one scrumptious supper, while the banqueters (mostly Italians and Italian Canadians)  were enjoying their tasty food, they all joined the discussion about what menu they would like to imagine for the next day’s meal. The Italian cultural attaché, one of the diners, exclaimed: “Italians are the only people who, while eating, think of the next meal!”. Whether this is true or not, food is a universal concern, although Italians, given their historical, regional, cultural, and character traits, seem to be overly obsessed with what, how, when, where, why they eat. So it is no surprise that food and science meet in Italian speculative fiction, although not as often as could perhaps be anticipated. This is why a lot of my expectations surfaced as soon as the publication of the volume Ma gli androidi mangiano spaghetti elettrici?  was made public.  The book is edited by Francesco Grasso, Marco Minicangeli, Massimo Mongai, and published as a companion to activities planned for the World Expo held in Milano in 2015. It contains 18 short stories by sci-fi known and less-known writers (among whom 4 women), and an afterword which attempts to tackle the question “Why do women not read and not write science fiction?”. The contents of this collection receive a more academic review in a forthcoming specialized publication, so the following muse on two considerations (out of many) which arose from having thought about food, science fiction, and transhumanism.

 

ma gli andr

 

Cyborgs and electric spaghetti?       

Although the title is a catchy transparent spoof on Philip K Dick’s Do androids dream of electric sheep? (this ploy was also used in an academic article entitled “Do androids eat electric sheep?” by Josh Toth), the stories do not involve androids and the protagonists do not eat or prepare electric spaghetti. (Caveat emptor.) Every contribution has to do with food: either in the form of seeds, insects, reclaimed produce after a cataclysmic disaster, humans as choice fodder for aliens, and many others. But it is still food for biological beings (human and otherwise).

If food provides energy (food apparently provides much more than that as the scientific literature on food informs us: see for ex., the Works Cited section below), it is legitimate to ask what would the sources of energy be for augmented humans? We need speculative fiction to give us imaginative answers to this. Energy provided to biological beings is surely different from that required by mechanical/nano-bio-cyborgian embodiments (the Borgs “regenerate”). Augmentation-prone transhumanists have so far avoided to deal with this topic, and it is highly surprising since the energy sources and the ways of their ingestion/ injection / imbibing/etc. are crucial for the augmented body. Senescence-abolishing transhumanists, though, will soon have a crowd-sourced cookbook (https://mariakonovalenko.wordpress.com/tag/longevity-cookbook/).

Transhumanists and gastronomy

Perhaps silence about food in transhumanist circles stems from the trouble with the visionary separation already anticipated by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in his Manifesto della cucina futurista (1930). Marinetti, a clever self-promoting artist, bon-vivant and iconoclast of traditional ways of doing things, envisaged two types of food: 1) Pills to satisfy the working classes’ need for energy during their couple of working hours a day and 2) Special banquets  with newly invented courses. It’s a pity that every commentator concentrated on the second suggestion, rather than elaborating on the first. Suffice it to say then that according to the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, food is either to be swallowed without regard for any sensory input, or enjoyed with almost a sensory overload. There are no half-measures, no in-between compromises. This may be the reason for the transhumanist gastronomic and ironic quandary: in the augmented beings, every feeling, sense, cognitive capabilities are ameliorated, so how can they accept eating pills/getting their energy from electric pulses, which presumably do not give any sensory pleasure at all?  Or will they, and how will this be accomplished?

In conclusion, it is hoped that future sci-fi and/or real nourishment will not be devoid of sensory pleasure, unless augmented beings lose that part of humanity which craves and is able to enjoy the energy consumption, whatever form it will take.

 

Works Cited

Belasco, Warren. Food. The Key concepts. Berg, 2008.

Jurafsky, Dan. The Language of Food. A Linguist Reads the Menu. W.W. Norton, 2014.

Marinetti, Tommaso Filippo. The Futurist cookbook. Translated by Suzanne Brill. Edited with an introduction by Lesley Chamberlain.  Bedford Arts Publishers, 1989.

Pautasso, Guido Andrea. Cucina futurista. Manifesti, menu, documenti. Carte d’artisti 158.Milano, Abscondita, 2015

Poulain, Jean-Pierre. Alimentazione, cultura e società. Il Mulino, 2008, trad. Aldo Pasquali.

Riva, Franco. Filosofia del cibo. Castelvecchi, 2015.

Reading fiction: brain or heart work?

It is said that Schopenhauer is the originator of the following dictum: “Reading is thinking with somebody else’s brain.” Assuming he was referring to reading fiction, he was only partly right.

There is a movement afoot nowadays to make reading fiction palatable to school officials, syllabus makers, etc. by insisting that reading fiction makes people more empathic (see http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study).
This, also, gives only a partial picture of what reading does for the careful reader.

So there are at least two positions regarding reading fiction: that of the brain (thinking) and that of the heart (feeling). Long lists belonging to either camp can be collected. However, the suggestion here is that both are true at the same time: books make us think and make us feel. Furthermore, the greatest books make us do both, and more: they make us also cry and laugh, being in an imagined environment of the special world created in a different language. Silvana Grasso’s L’albero di Giuda (Einaudi, 1997) is one such book.

grasso

It makes the reader think: the story of Sasa` Azzarello’s life, set between the 1920s and sometime before the 2000s in Sicily, overturns the usual stereotype of the daughter doing what the father wants: it is the son who has to live up to the father’s expectations. Studying philosophy completes one of the requirements: the son is brainy. The other requirement, that of being sexually endowed and doing what that expectation commands (il capitale), is, however, another matter. The son’s unhappy love affair with a Friulian young woman whom he met while he was studying in Padova, makes contemplating suicide a real option. Thus, much of the protagonist’s time is spent in attempting to find the right way of ending his life, the right time, the right location. But he also participates in the life of the town: he meets his friends, he cares for his wheelchair-bound cousin. Sasa` shows himself to be a master in reworking the Pirandellian motto “Così e` se vi pare” (It is so if it seems to you so), combining thinking about a matter or an event (happy or sad) and laughing at and with it.
The novel makes the reader feel: among other psychological vicissitudes, the desire for self-annihilation, lasting for more than 50 years, torments Sasa`: but this torment is accompanied by the need to be loved, a need which is never satisfied.

The book makes the reader cry: the description of the protagonist’s solitude and his scheming to commit suicide are heartbreaking, as is his decision to obey his father and marry Maddalenina, a type of Xantippe who does not understand him.

The novel makes the reader laugh: on many an occasion, the carefully premeditated suicide mission fails on account of really petty events. Describing the wife’s irruptions into the protagonist’s humdrum activities as Caporetto is one of the many funny nuggets that require outright laud laughter.

Regarding the language of the novel, it must be said that it is one of a kind: lexically, the use of many of the varieties of Italian available creates a dreamily elaborate atmosphere, but the author is also skillful in adding special, realistic touches when employing Sicilian dialect terms. These features seem mundane now, since another contemporary author uses many of these in books published after Silvana Grasso published her works. Andrea Camilleri’s fiction is so overwhelming and forcefully supported by all types of media that it is difficult for another author to emerge. Silvana Grasso’s style, however, is stronger and more interesting. Syntactically, too, she plays with novel possibilities to extend the syntactic groups and add to her linguistic tree a crown which is full and life-producing. The academia, as well, has not given Grasso her due, as there are few solid studies of her works (see, for ex., the essay “I romanzi di Silvana Grasso” by Sharon Wood, published in the collection Il romanzo contemporaneo, edited by Franca Pellegrini and Elisabetta Tarantino (Trubadour Publishing: 2006, 93-107) and “Tendenze linguistiche nella narrativa di fine secolo” by Valeria Della Valle, included in La narrativa italiana degli anni Novanta edited by Elisabetta Mondello (Meltemi: 2004, 39-68)

If you have a book which does all four (make you think, feel, cry and laugh), like Silvana Grasso’s L’albero di Giuda, please share it with us in the comment section below.

Humanity, imagination, money: challenges to Harari’s idea

TED talks are a great way to communicate succinctly and in a logical manner some interesting theories and ideas. What follows are three main challenges  to Yuval Noah Harari’s answer to the question: What explains the rise of humans? which he answers in a TED talk.

The objections stem from his main idea that humans are different from other species because they have imagination and that allows them to “cooperate flexibly in large numbers”. Therefore, humans live in two realities: one is objective, and, in his words,  “over the centuries, we have constructed on top of this objective reality a second layer of fictional reality, a reality made of fictional entities, like nations, like gods, like money, like corporations. And what is amazing is that as history unfolded, this fictional reality became more and more powerful so that today, the most powerful forces in the world are these fictional entities. Today, the very survival of rivers and trees and lions and elephants depends on the decisions and wishes of fictional entities, like the United States, like Google, like the World Bank — entities that exist only in our own imagination.” These are great ideas, but the objections below stem from my perplexity about some of them.

Challenge 1: The social collaboration, “the flexible cooperation in large numbers” cannot be possible without a supple and versatile communication system, i.e. verbal language,  that allows humans not only to share the imaginative musings of individuals, but also reinforces the ever-present  possibilities of cognitive transformations. Clearly, it is still a moot point whether language actually helped the development of imagination (symbolic, abstract  thinking) or whether it followed the rise of symbolic, abstract thinking. Harari does not explain the rise of imagination in the human species, nor does he mention the important aspect of the existence of language without which no collaboration would be possible. Furthermore, to share one’s imaginative stories is not enough, other humans must “buy” into them, must be convinced of their utility, functionality, necessity, etc. This was not explained in the talk either. Moreover, to understand, share and accept these stories is not enough: they must be acted upon, defended, elaborated on to actually construct the “objective” reality he mentions.

Challenge 2: The list of stories mentioned by Harari as those imaginative creations on which humans built everything includes religion, political and economic systems, states and nations, companies, corporations, money. The stories behind all of them make sense, with the exception of money. In fact, all of them except money are attempts at answering our deepest concerns about the purpose of life. Money is not a story in the sense that a religion is a story: there are stories around money and with money as the protagonist, but money itself is not a story. The explanatory strength of his idea of imagination and stories behind everything human is greatly weakened by this example. On the other hand, all these examples except money bring to mind Giambattista Vico’s “three ages” and human institutions which he elaborated on in the early 18th century in his Scienza nuova.

Challenge 3: It is interesting that Harari avoids the use of the word “narrative” in the sense of  Foucault’s grand narratives: this avoidance weakens his general idea further. The consequences of this point to the question What happens when these narratives (stories) do not prevail any longer? Of course, other narratives take the places of the old. One could muse and suggest that transhumanism is replacing religion as the grand narrative now. If this is the case, then all the other examples of Harari’s stories would fall to the wayside (ironically, maybe except for “money”). To be a transhuman surely means to have narratives (imagination), but not of the kind Harari proposes for humans.

In conclusion, Harari’s ideas are worthy of interest, if only to point towards perspectives that challenge them.