The Face That Replicates

From The Paris Review:

Sylvia refused to wear her glasses, which is why she saw me everywhere on campus. It seemed like it was every day that she’d come to our dorm’s living room and tell me about the not-Katy. “I yelled at her again,” she sighed, flopping onto the worn couch. “It wasn’t you.” It never was.

There wasn’t only one not-me. There were several other girls on our small liberal arts campus who had dirty-blond hair and shaggy bangs, girls who wore knee-high boots and short skirts, low-rise jeans and V-neck sweaters and too many tangled necklaces. In 2005, I didn’t stand out. I still don’t. My face, I suspect, is rather forgettable. I’m neither pretty enough to be remarkable nor strange enough to be interesting. This is true for the majority of people, though I have wondered if I have “one of those faces” that is particularly prone to inducing déjà vu. Some people seem like permanent doppelgängers. I became hypervigilant, on the lookout for not-mes that were also, sort of, me.

Looking back, I’m not surprised that I became obsessed with these look-alikes during this particular time period, in those heady and exciting early days of social media. Although the idea of doubling and mimesis dates back to the ancient Greeks and flourished in the popular imagination in gothic horror, my experience with doppelgängers still feels distinctly contemporary to me, an anxiety that arose with the camera in the nineteenth century and was then compounded by social media and its endless catalogues of faces. Although Facebook back then was limited to college students, it was still a place where one could get lost. You could lose hours searching, as I did, for people with your exact same name and friend requesting each and every one of them. You could meander through the uncanny haze of “doppelgänger week,” a destabilizing moment in the early 2000s when my classmates’ pimpled, imperfect, earnest faces were suddenly replaced by thumbnails of Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, and Halle Berry. It was more than just embarrassing. It was a massive Freudian slip, a sudden reveal of latent desires and delusions. We wanted to replace our faces with better, more beautiful ones—but not completely. We wanted to represent ourselves with images that weren’t us, exactly, but that were close.

. . . .

One of my favorite doppelgänger stories is Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson,” which I read around the same time that my not-me began appearing in the edges of Sylvia’s blurry vision. This Poe tale is about a boy named William Wilson who meets another William Wilson and is dogged, throughout his life, by the disturbing presence of this other William Wilson. As the story progresses, we learn that this weird fellow is not actually our narrator’s evil twin, as we might have expected. He’s better than our narrator. He stops our narrator from doing a number of bad things before the original William succeeds in reasserting his uniqueness—by an act of murder, naturally.

William Wilson is not a funny story, exactly. But it’s full of little ironies that start to feel like jokes, from the name (William, son of Will, a pseudonym that’s also an echo) to the weird origins of the text itself. First of all, the story is a homage to a story that Washington Irving wrote called “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron.” Poe even wrote to Irving, sending him a copy of his tale, and asked him for a blurb to help sell the story. Later, in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Poe wrote that one of them, “Howe’s Masquerade,” was very similar to “William Wilson,” so much so that “we observe something which resembles a plagiarism—but which may be a very flattering coincidence of thought.” A few years later, in 1846, Fyodor Dostoyevsky published his own similar novella, The Double: A Petersburg Poem, which he later rewrote and republished in 1866.

This type of doppelgänger story continued to multiply. Vladimir Nabokov called The Double a “perfect work of art” in his classroom lectures, though of course the story was ripe for rewritings—hence Nabokov’s own beleaguered and haunted narrators. The novels Despair and Lolita feature not quite doppelgängers but pairs of men behaving badly. In the twentieth century, we became adept at capturing, manipulating, and presenting precise visual copies of individuals through photography, film, and digital manipulation. Humans no longer had to use a hall of mirrors (or a skilled portrait artist) to see themselves doubled, tripled, quadrupled. We also became better at selective breeding and genetic manipulation. Dolly the sheep emerged from an adult cell in 1996, and attendant anxieties and sensational interest in the literal copies spiked Eventually, the concept of the double in art was superseded by the clone, as we slouched closer and closer to literal self-replication.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Transitions and Homes…

From House of Geek:

Well, we have a home now. What does this mean? Has it been a struggle? What’s going on?

Well, a lot of things have been going on since my father has passed. Yes, we are living with mom now, and so much more.

So, let’s catch up.

As you would probably expect, it’s had its ups and downs. There are songs I can’t listen to without losing it and becoming a blubbering fool. There are good days and bad days. We’re all taking it one day at a time.

Mom…

She has admitted a lot. The first thing she has admitted is that she misses dad more than she thought she would. I didn’t say anything when she admitted this. This year would have been fifty years they’ve been married. OF COURSE, she’s going to miss him and every annoying thing she said he did.

She has also admitted she needs a grief counselor. She’s fighting depression every day. I know because of the music she’s playing out of the tv. She’s had some really bad days. She’s been fighting the urge to dive head-first into booze and not come out. She’s doing good on that front.

ADHD, Mom, my schedule, and me

Yup, that’s been a challenge as well. I will plan out my workday only to have mom make her own and include me without telling me until the day she’s got to do anything.

So, I started asking her if she had anything planned to do so I can work it into the day. She will tell me of appointments, but not errands. She will say she’s got errands to do and then volunteer me to drive.

There’s that. Now, I have to keep an ear open to see if she’s planning on doing anything that involves leaving the house and me lightening my load.

I have no clue what she’s going to do when I find a part-time remote-work job. Can’t drop everything to take her everywhere then.

My focus makes me irritated when she does that. So, I have to take a break and a deep breath as I try to refocus. I am trying not to make it difficult for her. She’s going through enough already.

Did I mention I’ve had the first COVID stab? No, well there you go.

Fighting it with humor.

Yup, I can’t help it. I have to crack a joke or two just to break the tension. Here are some things that I came up with to make mom chuckle.

She has chocolate with booze in it, and she loves extra sharp cheddar, always has it in the house. “Would we like our evening cordial and medicinal cheddar this evening?” Said in a goofy, over-the-top British accent.

Whenever she mentions there’s mail for dad, I respond with, “We’ll forward it to the seance department.”

I have nicknamed the CR-V Bessy and I tell her to “whoa” when we have to stop in the snow.

Those are just a few of them.

Link to the rest at House of Geek

Is virtue signalling a vice?

From Aeon:

As a quick stroll on social media reveals, most people love showing that they are good. Whether by expressing compassion for disaster victims, sharing a post to support a social movement, or denouncing a celebrity’s racist comment, many people are eager to broadcast their high moral standing.

Critics sometimes dismiss these acts as mere ‘virtue signalling’. As the British journalist James Bartholomew (who popularised the term in a magazine article in 2015) remarks, virtue signallers enjoy the privilege of feeling better about themselves by doing very little. Unlike the kind of helping where you have to do something – help an old lady cross the street, volunteer to give meals to the dispossessed, go door-to-door to fundraise for a cause – virtue signalling often consists of completely costless actions, such as changing your profile picture or saying you don’t like a politician’s stance on immigration. Bartholomew complains that ‘saying the right things violently on Twitter is much easier than real kindness’.

Virtue signalling can be easy – but why does that make it seem bad?

To answer this question, and understand virtue signalling in general, we need to take a couple of steps backs. In everyday discourse, the people who accuse others of virtue signalling are often not interested in doing real moral analysis – mostly, they want to discredit their political opponents. My allies are heroically rallying for a just cause, people on the other side are virtue signalling. It might be more illuminating to look at what science says on the subject. Why do we have the strong emotions we have about virtue signalling, and is it actually good or bad?

Over the past few decades, scientists in a variety of fields have developed sophisticated analyses of signalling as a general phenomenon – how humans (and other animals) send signals designed to convey information to other individuals. The insights of signalling theory can be counterintuitive, and have had a huge impact on biology and the social sciences. They also tell us that virtue signalling is more nuanced and more interesting than the picture painted by conventional wisdom and political rhetoric. As it turns out, there are bad and good things about virtue signalling – but probably not for the reasons you think.

Why do we scold virtue signallers for having it easy? The urge to dismiss someone’s actions because they took no effort is powerful. But does it not make more sense to focus on what that action actually achieves? Why do we often focus on the costs people pay rather than how effective they are at making the world better?

A few decades ago, biologists and economists struggled with similar questions. Why are peahens so attracted by the peacocks with the most extravagant tails – which are very costly to maintain but otherwise seemingly useless? Why do employers care that you put yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to get an Ivy League degree in sociology with no obvious relevance to the job?

In the 1970s, the zoologist Amotz Zahavi and the economist Michael Spence offered a provocative answer. They argued that the cost paid by the peacock (or the college graduate) is the whole point. Their argument (which won Spence a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001) is a bit subtle, so it is worth carefully looking at how it works. Communication is difficult because individuals have incentives to lie. Employers are looking for certain qualities (intelligence, conscientiousness, ambition) in their employees. They could ask the people they interview if they are intelligent and conscientious, but why wouldn’t the job candidates simply lie?

Instead, employers select their employees on the basis of signals that are difficult to fake, such as university degrees. In general, having the qualities that employers value makes it easier to get a degree. People who do not have the right mix of intelligence, conscientiousness and ambition will find college more difficult, and either drop out or spend much more time completing their studies. People who anticipate that getting a degree would be too costly for them will opt out.

So, in principle, even if nothing you had learnt was relevant to the job you want, completing the degree still sends a valuable signal to potential employers: you are the kind of person for whom this high-effort achievement is easy enough. Because it sends a valuable signal, it is in your interest to get a degree, and in the employer’s interest to hire you on its basis.

People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status

A similar argument applies in the biological domain, but with natural selection in the driver’s seat. Growing an extravagant tail is moderately costly for a healthy peacock – but a diseased bird would put its life at risk if he spent that much energy growing the ornament. Therefore, only the peacocks in good enough condition can afford to grow an elaborate tail. As such, natural selection favours peahens who prefer peacocks with a long tail, because these peahens mate with healthy males, and get healthy offspring as a result.

Costly signals – signals that are honest because of the fact that they are costly – are ubiquitous. Why do people give flowers to their romantic interests, or take them to overpriced restaurants? Probably because these acts are costly: were the suitor not interested in a long-term relationship, he would have little incentive to invest such effort. His gifts function not because roses are particularly useful items, but because they are a costly signal of his commitment.

Here is why this matters for virtue signalling. Dishonesty is a major problem in the moral domain. People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status. Our moral sense evolved because people who convince others of their moral qualities reap such social benefits. But what prevents someone from pretending to be a good person, reaping all the social benefits, and not following through?

Throughout human evolution, being able to discriminate true allies (who stick with you no matter what) from fair-weather friends (who abandon you when you fall ill) could make the difference between life and death. As such, humans are obsessed with moral hypocrisy. We carefully scrutinise potential romantic partners, friends or team members for signs that they’re not only in it for the money. And since – per the logic of costly signalling – the costs that people are willing to pay are a reliable signal of their commitment, we pay extra attention to these costs when we evaluate other people. Social psychologists have found that, when we see someone perform an altruistic act, we’re suspicious that they’re really being altruistic if they derive some benefit from the act. Clever cognitive psychology experiments even show that we categorise other people on the basis of the costs they are willing to pay to benefit their group – but not on the basis of the amount of benefits they actually provide.

This is probably why we find virtue signallers irritating. They are doing things that might gain them social status – the approval of society, a place on the right side of history. But are they actually committed to the causes they support? Or are they just interested in the social benefits? When they are not paying any meaningful costs, virtue signallers activate the alarm bells that millions of years of evolution put in our heads to protect us from fair-weather friends and other moral hypocrites.

So let’s concede that some virtue signalling is fake, but does that mean it is bad? Here it is useful to take a step back from our default mode of thinking. Evolution designed our brain to make us good at small-scale interaction, but we are not very good (or especially concerned) at evaluating the large-scale social effects of things. As such, it is easy for a polemist to throw discredit on someone who virtue-signals by pointing out that there is no guarantee that the person actually shares your moral values. But is this the right yardstick by which to evaluate these signals?

In defence of virtue signallers, research on signalling theory shows that even cheap talk can be useful.

Life is rife with coordination problems. Consider passing someone on the street going the other way. You both have a shared incentive to coordinate about which side of the sidewalk to walk on, so that you don’t bump into each other. Even though the other person is a complete stranger, there is no particular reason she would try to deceive you. In such circumstances, people will send signals (eg, stop before making a sudden exaggerated movement toward one side) to successfully coordinate. Mathematical models show that these costless signals can be crucial in helping people solve otherwise thorny coordination problems.

Coordination is crucial in the moral domain too. Imagine you live in a society that practises slavery, and you think you are the only one morally revulsed by it. Should you speak out about your concerns? If you think that everyone else is indifferent, you might be afraid that others will think you are weird, that the people benefiting from the system will punish you, and that you stand no chance to make a difference anyway.

The paradox is that, even if many people are in this situation – everyone is concerned but convinced that no one else is – they might fail to act, despite having the majority opinion. But speaking up can start a chain reaction. The more individuals raise their voice to denounce what they see as a moral problem, the more the initially silent people realise they are not alone and speak up in turn.

When everyone can expect everyone to know, it is harder for you to claim ignorance as a defence

Loud and public signals are especially effective as establishing common knowledge of a moral norm ­making sure that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone else knows that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows (and so on). Psychology experiments have demonstrated that common knowledge is a powerful determinant of social behaviour: people are much more likely to coordinate on a joint action when everyone knows that everyone knows that working together will generate good outcomes.

Link to the rest at Aeon

PG’s Rabbit Hole Warning: There are lots and lots of intriguing links in the OP that can burn up several hours of your time, seemingly in a heartbeat.

Against Any Intrusion

From The Paris Review:

February 14, 2019
Santa Monica, California

Dearest Gwen,

I know this letter to you is an artifice. I know you are dead and that I’m alive and that no usual communication is possible between us but, as my mother used to say, “Time is a strange substance,” and who knows really, with our time-bound comprehension of the world, whether there might be some channel by which we can speak to each other, if we only knew how: like tuning a radio so that the crackling sound of the airwaves is slipstreamed into words. Maybe the sound of surf, or of rushing water, is actually the echoes of voices that have been similarly distorted through time. I don’t suppose this is true, and you don’t either. But I do feel mysteriously connected to you.

We are both painters. We can connect to each other through images, in our own unvoiced language. But I will try and reach you with words. Through talking to you I may come alive and begin to speak, like the statue in Pygmalion. I have painted myself in silent seated poses, still as a statue, and so have you. Perhaps, through you, I can begin to trace the reason for my transformation into painted stone.

It has been a time of upheaval for me and I have been trying to gather my thoughts. So many things have ended, or are ending. New beginnings, too. I have been thinking a lot about the past, about our past, and it has never struck me so forcibly as now, when I am nearly sixty years old, just how much our lives have been stamped with a similar pattern.

. . . .

We both work best from women. Your mother died when you were only eight whereas mine died when I was fifty-five, yet mothers are of central significance to both of us. We are both close to our sisters, one in particular: you to Winifred, whom you often painted, I to Kate, my younger sister, who is my most regular sitter. The two men I have been most intensely involved with, Lucian Freud and my husband, Steven Kupfer—in both cases their girlfriend before me had been called Kate; I had suffered terrible jealousy at Kate’s birth and felt supplanted by her in my mother’s affection, but then grew to love her particularly. Jealousy heightens love; the special intensity with which we observe the object of our mother’s (or lover’s) devotion narrows the beam of our focus. Who was it who said that love was the highest form of attention?

One of the main reasons I want to speak to you now is because I’ve become increasingly aware of how both of us are regarded in relation to men. You are always associated, in the public’s eyes, with your brother Augustus and with your lover, Auguste Rodin. I am always seen in light of my involvement with Lucian Freud. We are neither of us considered as artists standing alone. I hate the term in her own right—as in “artist in her own right”—because it suggests that we are still bound to our overshadowed lives, like freed slaves. I hate the word muse, too, for the same limiting reason. We are both referred to as muses, and you have repeatedly been described as “a painter in her own right,” as I have. Why are some women artists seen for what they are uniquely? What is it about us that keeps us tethered? Both of our talents are entirely separate from those of the men we have been attached to—we are neither of us derivative in any way. Do you think that, without fully understanding why, we are both of us culpable?

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Should fiction writers ever lift stories from other people’s lives?

From The Guardian:

Name: The muse.

Age: Ancient.

Appearance: Let’s start with “complicated”.

Before we start, can I tell you something strange that happened to me recently? No, you can’t! Please don’t.

Why? Because I guarantee that someone, somewhere, will rip it off and pass it off as their own.

But it’s a good story. Stop it! Didn’t you read Who Is the Bad Art Friend? yesterday?

Bad What Friend? It’s the title of a punishingly long article in the New York Times that has set the world alight. It’s hard to sum up succinctly, but the story of Who Is the Bad Art Friend? is basically this: a woman donated her kidney to a stranger, and then a second woman wrote a story about donating a kidney to a stranger.

Right. And it all kicked off. Nobody comes out of it particularly well, but it begs the question: are writers allowed to mine the lives of others?

Yes. But isn’t there something vampiric about leeching off someone else’s experience?

James Gandolfini routinely called the writing staff of The Sopranos “vampires” for exactly that reason, and that was the best television series ever made. But isn’t there a line where things become creepy?

No. I mean, what about Cat Person?

Oh here we go, Cat Person again. At the time it was published, Kristen Roupenian’s short story was heralded as lightning in a bottle; the perfect summation of the female experience. But then this year we learned that Roupenian had wholesale lifted the experience from a woman named Alexis Nowicki, who subsequently wrote a first-person essay about it.

Who would be a muse, eh? Loads of people, that’s the thing. Dante wrote about his childhood crush Beatrice di Folco Portinari in The Divine Comedy. Jane Austen used an old flame as inspiration for Mr Darcy. Charles Dickens based numerous characters on his lover Ellen Ternan. It was all fine and nobody minded.

So what changed? Two words: the internet. Online, everybody gets to create a bubble where they are the star of their own finely honed story. So when someone else mines their life for a different story, it feels more like a violation. Also, who’s to say that Ternan enjoyed being written about? She couldn’t complain on Facebook.

Does this story have a moral? Yes: it’s that writers are terrible people and you should cut them all from your life immediately.

Link to the rest at The Guardian