Random finds (2019, week 13) — On lessons in leadership, moral dilemmas in art, and the hidden injuries of the age of exposure

Image for post
Image for post
Alvaro Siza orchestrates, like no other, the experience of the visitor in his works. By means of compressions and decompression, openings and closings, volumes, voids and light, the Portuguese architect marks the paths, points of view, and perspective of the passage of time — Alvaro Siza’s Iberê Camargo Foundation Through the Lens of Ronaldo Azambuja

I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my fluid and boundless curiosity.

If you want to know more about my work and how I help senior executives and leadership teams find their way through complexity and change, please visit my ‘uncluttered’ website.

This week: Jacinda Ardern shows us what real leadership is; should we separate art from the artists?; the unlimited opportunities for violating one’s own privacy; Pico Iyer on making space to go inward; habits as the ‘great guide of human life’; the three types of specialists needed for the success of any revolution; spotlight on Laure; and, finally, Kitanya Harrison on ‘White Feminism.’

Lessons in leadership from Jacinda Ardern

Since 2017, when she was sworn in as the country’s youngest prime minister, Ardern “became something of a celebrity. She gave birth in office, taking her baby to the United Nations general assembly meeting. She became something of a celebrity, appearing on US chatshows. But was there any substance to her? That question is asked of all women leaders. What is underneath? Where is the steel?

Now, in the most horrific of circumstances, we have seen the steel. We have seen the qualities that define leadership in such a way that it is clear she is a lioness and that to call so many of our current leaders donkeys is a disservice to hardworking donkeys the world over.

She has communicated quickly and immediately, giving New Zealanders as much information as she could. She has given them a language in which to talk about the unspeakable, to vocalise the shock and sadness. ‘They are us,’ she said simply of the dead and wounded. The ‘othering’ of Muslims as separate, as somehow different, as not quite belonging, was felled in one swoop. ‘They are us.’ New Zealand had been chosen because it was safe, because it was no place for hatred or racism. ‘Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it,’” Moore writes.

When asked directly whether she agreed with Donald Trump that rightwing terrorism was not growing, she answered clearly: “No.” How could the US help? “Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.”

“Sympathy and love,” Moore continues, “what kind of leader talks like that in a world where to be tough is to build walls and imprison children or, on our own shores, elevate intransigence and prevarication to new heights?

Image for post
Image for post
“Trump threatens all with the military in his quasi–Mussolini style. While Theresa May could not communicate any of this warmth or leadership in the aftermath of Grenfell. That leadership could be about compassion and that overused word ‘empathy’ feels freeing to us now,” Suzanne Moore writes in Jacinda Ardern is showing the world what real leadership is: sympathy, love and integrity. (Photograph by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“That leadership could be about compassion and that overused word ‘empathy’ feels freeing to us now. It wasn’t always this way. Dwight Eisenhower once said: ‘The supreme quality of leadership is unquestionably integrity.’ Ardern embodies this; meaning what she says, saying what she means, unafraid and unbowed.

Māori doing their immensely powerful haka, Ardern’s face full of sorrow but also fearlessness, ordinary citizens with aftershocks of expression of love and bravery — this will stay with me. Martin Luther King said genuine leaders did not search for consensus but moulded it.

Ardern has moulded a different consensus, demonstrating action, care, unity. Terrorism sees difference and wants to annihilate it. Ardern sees difference and wants to respect it, embrace it and connect with it. Here is an agnostic showing that love will dismantle hate. This is leadership, this light she shines, guiding us though to a world where we see the best of us as well as the worst.”

Image for post
Image for post
Jacinda Ardern’s response to the Christchurch shooting exemplifies an alternative to a politics of irrational fear and anger in times of national crisis. (Photograph by Kirk Hargreaves/Christchurch city council)

The lesson of Jacinda Ardern’s response to the recent terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch, killing 50 people, extends far beyond her legislative solutions,” says Dany Li in Governing Beyond Fear and Anger. It “illustrates how in addition to wise policy-making, democratic governance requires the mediation of public emotion to promote the flourishing of political and social life. In response to terrorist violence, the prime minister’s job was not only to address policy-related concerns, but also to address the hearts of the nation (and world) in a manner conducive to successful democratic politics. What’s remarkable is just how successful Ardern has been at this task.

In her recent book, The Monarchy of Fear, philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that two emotions in particular are corrosive to democratic politics: fear and anger. Fear, Nussbaum writes, ‘is intensely narcissistic.’ It turns us away from others and is easily manipulated by political leaders. She notes that a rational fear of terrorism can easily turn into an irrational fear of Muslims. When irrational fear runs rampant, the political climate will suffer from mistrust, division, and instability.

Anger, Nussbaum argues, is an offspring and accomplice of fear. Although not inherently irrational, anger has the potential to be corrupted into something retributive when fueled by fear. Public retributive anger contains ‘a burning desire for payback, as if the suffering of someone else could solve the group’s or the nation’s problems.’ For Nussbaum, retributive anger is a problem because it ‘is a kind of irrational magical thinking, and because it distracts us from the future, which we can change, and often should,’” Li writes.

“Behind Nussbaum’s arguments about emotion in politics is the understanding that rhetoric — especially the rhetoric of political leaders — matters in the mediation of public emotion. How leaders talk about crisis, tragedy, and injustice plays a decisive role in determining a community’s emotional response. Depending on a leader’s words, these emotions can either uplift or degrade the state of democratic politics.

Ardern’s response to the Christchurch shooting exemplifies an alternative to a politics of irrational fear and anger in times of national crisis. That alternative is grief and compassion. Anger and grief are both emotional responses to the pain of losing something valuable in life; but Ardern chose grief over anger in order to heal rather than infect the wound the Christchurch attack left in New Zealand.”

Moral dilemmas in art

“It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us,” he writes in Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite! “We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.

I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.”

Image for post
Image for post
“When they discover the anti-Semitism of Wharton or Dostoyevsky, the racism of Walt Whitman or Joseph Conrad, the sexism of Ernest Hemingway or Richard Wright, the class snobbery of E. M. Forster or Virginia Woolf, not all of them express their repugnance as dramatically as the student I talked to, but many perform an equivalent exercise, dumping the offending books into a trash basket in their imaginations,” Brian Morton writes in in Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite!Virginia Woolf (c. 1912, oil on board), by Vanessa Bell (© Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett)

Caitlin Flanagan raises another moral dilemma in The Art of a Monster: what to do with Michael Jackson’s music?

“Edmund Wilson taught us in The Wound and the Bow — nominally about Sophocles’s Philoctetes, an obscure play about the great archer who was bitten by a snake and suffered from its suppurating wound for years — that ‘the victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also the master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs.’ T. S. Eliot wrote in Tradition and the Individual Talent, ‘The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.’ More to the point, Don Cornelius said, ‘It is always a pleasure to find something that matters.’

Michael Jackson’s art matters. It matters not because of any sociopolitical significance, although many of his songs bear uplifting messages. It matters not for its implications about race in America. It matters because of the simple fact that it is, in every sense, the gift revealed.

A generation ago, young people read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift to understand how to live meaningful lives by cultivating within themselves the ability to receive art: ‘An essential portion of any artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that begging bowl to which the gift is drawn.’

You can cast away Picasso because Hannah Gadsby told you he was cruel to women. But can you cast away Guernica? Art isn’t something mere; it doesn’t exist as the moral bona fides of the person who made it. That person is a supernumerary. Separate yourself from any art — even popular art; even art created simply as entertainment — and you separate yourself from all of it.”

Image for post
Image for post
“Michael Jackson may well have been a paedophile. Paul Gauguin certainly was. The artist, famous for his paintings of young girls in Tahiti, had relationships in Tahiti with those girls when he was not only middle-aged but had syphilis. […] At the time of writing, the National Gallery has not considered removing his works from display,” David Lister writes in We all know about Jackson and Spacey, but what about Gauguin and Hitchcock?Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897, oil on canvas), by Paul Gauguin (Photograph by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

“When the artist is shown to have transgressed, his art too is forever spurned. Or is it? It seems to me there are bewildering inconsistencies in whom we choose to damn and whom we choose to indulge,” David Lister writes in We all know about Jackson and Spacey, but what about Gauguin and Hitchcock?

After watching the documentary Leaving Neverland, “commentators were united as one in saying that such was their disgust with the once revered King of Pop that they could no longer listen to his music (though in the muddled confusion that surrounds these issues, the hit show Thriller, built around his music, continues to draw the crowds in London’s West End),” Lister writes.

Like Michael Jackson, also the late British composer Benjamin Britten had an unhealthy infatuation with pre-pubescent adolescent boys and, disturbingly, had them stay at his home. “Were he alive now, I suspect that Britten would come under an unforgiving media spotlight. But, as things stand, there is no sign of the Royal Opera House excluding him from their repertoire.”

Lister also wonders why we don’t seem to make equivalent judgements when it comes to the visual arts? Could it be that the passing of time is a factor in how we make these judgements?

Despite Paul Gauguin’s despicable lifestyle, he is still revered as a key figure in the history of modern art. “Colonialist, chauvinist, exploiter … Gauguin may have been all these things and more — but, as the Tate’s brilliant new show reveals, his faults are what make him great,” Adrian Searle wrote in his review of an exhibition at Tate Modern in 2010. “Gauguin: Maker of Myth rescues the artist from his reputation as the amoral, dissolute monster of trashy biopics, and gives us instead a Gauguin for our time.” And “if one can listen to Britten’s Peter Grimes with a clear conscience and congratulate oneself on appreciating a Gauguin exhibition, why should one feel a shudder in listening to Bad and Dangerous or watching an old House of Cards?”

“It is hard to ignore revulsion at a personality defect so marked that it can harm, degrade and traumatise fellow human beings. But ignore it one must, I would argue, when it comes to a work of art,” Lister believes. “We can, as seems to happen now, write known abusers, and even alleged abusers, and their work out of history. Or, we can judge a work of art as an entity in itself and put the flawed, even criminal creator out of mind, but at the same time deprive known abusers of the opportunity to make any more art. Or, we take the view that once a work is created, its creator is irrelevant. Judge the art, not the artist.

[…]

It’s hard and it’s uncomfortable to have to separate the art from the artist. But if we don’t, we are hypocritical about our own critical judgements, write people’s achievements out of cultural history, and behave with remarkable inconsistency about which art is deemed ‘acceptable.’”

Image for post
Image for post
Nan Goldin’s anti-opioid activist group Pain (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) held protests inside New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photogaph by Gabriella Angeleti)

But if we separate art from the artist, shouldn’t we also separate money from the benefactor or from how it was obtained in the first place?

This question gained particular interest when the American photographer Nan Goldin protested at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Guggenheim Museum in New York last February, and threatened to withdraw a planned exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, in protest against the funding of these institutions by members of the Sackler family. The Sackler family made their fortune (estimated by Forbes at $13 billion) through their ownership of Purdue Pharma, inventor and purveyor of the opioid painkiller OxyContin a drug that has been blamed for the opioid epidemic.

Following this scrutiny, the Sacklers have withdrawn a £1m handout that was held up in the National Portrait Gallery’s ethics committee, which decides whether the promised dosh is “in conflict with the objectives and values of the gallery.” Also the Tate group of British art galleries has announced that it will no longer take Sackler cash.

But according to Mark Lawson, “The new puritans among the producers and consumers of arts do not rely on financial audit or legal due diligence but on a subjective sniff test.” He wonders how holes in the coffers left by a donor-wash will be filled.

“It seems unlikely that many contemporary winners of Nobel prizes are actively enthusiastic about dynamite and armaments, the cash from which set up the foundation that now honours titans of thinking. It must be particularly odd for recipients of the peace prize to reflect on where the money came from, yet laureates presumably take the view that the somewhat bloodied money can now be put to purer use. This attitude is understandable and might offer a model for the response of artists and gallery-goers haunted by the provenance of the wonga that allows the institutions to put on the shows.

At the end of this process of ethical cleansing looms the spectre of a museum that, after returning exhibits to the owners from whom they were looted by colonising collectors, and sending to the storerooms works by artists whose behaviour offends the morals of today, stands completely empty. And, above the doors of those barren galleries, the wood is chipped and discoloured from the emergency removal of the names of those donors whose wealth or values risk gathering pickets outside exhibitions.

If, unsurprisingly, the Sacklers now take their money elsewhere and are followed out of the boardroom doors by other philanthropists concerned that their bank accounts will be found to lack sufficient moral underpinning, then it will be our cultural institutions — and, as a consequence of their funding poverty, artists and gallery-goers — that suffer a pain from which, in a state that increasingly encourages the arts to seek private funding, there will be no easy relief.”

Image for post
Image for post
“When John D. Rockefeller launched the Rockefeller Foundation […], former President Theodore Roosevelt condemned it, saying, ‘No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.’ But since then, we’ve warmed to philanthropy by the very rich. That’s in part because a few prominent billionaires have done it exceptionally well. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are two names that come to mind in any conversation about billionaire philanthropy, and their work on public health, vaccination programs, and global development has saved millions of lives,” Kelsey Piper writes in The Sackler family made their fortune in opioids — and museums are rejecting their donations. (Photograph by Jack Taylor / Getty Images)

Kelsey Piper wonders what makes money unethically acquired? And if money was unethically acquired, what do you do with it?

“This is a question that philanthropists — and everyone who wants their money — have been wrestling with for a very long time,” she writes in The Sackler family made their fortune in opioids — and museums are rejecting their donations.

“In his book Just Giving, Stanford University’s Rob Reich examines the power philanthropists exercise in society and argues that we’re too uncritical about it. We applaud people for their generosity without holding it to the same standards we’d hold their other choices to. As Roosevelt might complain [see caption above], we are letting generosity in spending a fortune compensate for misconduct in acquiring it.

More than anything, the striking thing about the Sackler situation is it’s a sign that this might be changing. Nonprofits are feeling the need to consider where their donations come from. Philanthropy is being examined and critiqued — and protested, in dramatic public fashion, when it seems inappropriate.”

The Sacklers are, in many respects, an unusually clear-cut case but not all cases are like that. “How should we evaluate billionaires who haven’t broken any laws or pushed their products with fraud, but who’ve done more diffuse, complicated harms — lobbied for special advantages from the government, been careless with customer data or privacy?

It seems clear that we can’t expect sainthood — or billionaires will avoid the gauntlet of public criticism by avoiding donating at all. Personally, I’d be excited about a sort of balancing test for public outrage. How egregious was the misconduct engaged in while they made their fortune? How much good are they doing now? Honestly, if the Sacklers had saved millions of lives with their philanthropy, I might be more hesitant to take them to task for how they built their fortune,” Piper writes.

“Roosevelt, though, would call that beside the point — and I think Rob Reich would agree. Their take is that we can’t let philanthropy become a way to wash blood off your money.”

Piper sees where they’re coming from but, to some extent, there’s blood on all of our money. “It’s not clear where we should draw the line.”

The hidden injuries of the age of exposure

‘What do we lose when we lose our privacy?’ has become increasingly difficult question to answer, Gurstein writes. We live in a society that offers boundless opportunities for men and women to expose themselves (in all dimensions of that word) and commit what are essentially self-invasions of privacy — from selfies and Instagrammed trivia to the almost automatic, everyday activity on Facebook. But our online pastime is nowhere near as private as we had been led to believe. The mania for attention of any kind is, however, so pervasive — and the invasion of privacy so nonchalant — that many of us no longer notice, let alone mind, what in the past would have been experienced as insolent violations of privacy.

“Given our widespread obliviousness to the current situation, we might be better served by asking: What did people used to believe they lost when they lost their privacy? Surprisingly, it turns out that a large number of people began to speak of privacy in a self-conscious way only toward the end of the nineteenth century. As is often the case, the first defenders of privacy became aware of its value at the moment they were on the verge of losing it,” Gurstein writes.

“Moral coarsening — the wearing away of the capacity to recognize what one has become — was both the deepest anxiety and the deepest insight of [the first defenders of privacy]. If it is our very capacity for sensitivity, our feeling for ‘certain differences and decencies’ — what used to be regarded as a sense of shame — that we lose as a consequence of inhabiting a world where no one is guaranteed the refuge of privacy and no subject is afforded the protection of silence, then this goes a long way toward explaining why more than a century later — after the invention and proliferation of the radio, television, cell phones, twenty-four-hour news cycles, and the internet — so many of us today have such a hard time recognizing what we lose when we lose our privacy. It turns out that the very atmosphere in which we move and breathe deprives us of the perception we need to recognize our predicament.”

Image for post
Image for post
The world we inhabit today feels ever more ugly, coarse, and trivial.” (Illustration by Armando Veve)

Like the self-conscious understanding of privacy, also the cult of exposure is of recent vintage, emerging during the last part of the nineteenth century when a deep-seated suspicion of privacy as a hiding place for wrongdoing took on a particular cast in Western democracies.

“‘In all democratic societies today,’ wrote Godkin, ‘the public is disposed either to resent attempts at privacy, either of mind or body, or to turn them into ridicule.’ In addition, ‘democratic’ apostles of exposure were apt to suspect ‘all regard for or precautions about privacy’ as signs of ‘exclusiveness’ — what today is called ‘elitism.’”

In his novel, The Reverberator (1888), the American author, Henry James, “brings this attitude to exquisite life when he has the prying newspaperman George Flack explain his ambitions to his friend Francie Dosson:

‘I’m going for the inside view, the choice bits . . . what the people want is just what ain’t told, and I’m going to tell it. . . .That’s about played out, anyway, the idea of sticking up a sign of private and hands off and no thoroughfare and thinking you can keep the place to yourself. . . . Now what I’m going to do is set up the biggest lamp yet made and make it shine all over the place. We’ll see who’s private then, and whose hands are off, and who’ll frustrate the People — the People that wants to know. That’s a sign of the American people that they do want to know.’

This allegedly democratic appeal to the ‘people’ was constantly put forward by editors of the new-style journalism: ‘We are giving the people what they want and we have the receipts to prove it.’”

Since then, nothing much has changed.

But, according to Gurstein, “We are confronted with another loss of sensibility that has blinded us to what we might call the collateral damage of today’s widespread disregard for privacy. We are no longer aware, as [the first defenders of privacy were], that when private matters are indiscriminately flooded with light their very nature changes. For the people involved […] the affairs were important and consequential, but once they were exposed in public they became banal and laughable, furnishing steady material for the jokes of late-night talk shows. And the transformation can go in another direction: now that newspapers have abandoned euphemism to describe what these people did in what they believed was private, their sexual proclivities, flooded by light, have become obscene. The latter has especially been the case with the #MeToo movement: any reader of the latest, minutely detailed article about sexual harassment that the New York Times specializes in quickly finds that he or she has been turned into a voyeur. It is no wonder, then, that the world we inhabit together feels ever more ugly, coarse, and trivial. When the boundary between public and private becomes as extremely porous as it is today, we lose far more than ‘that kingdom of the mind, that inner world of personal thought and feeling in which every man passes some time,’ which would have been disastrous enough.

[…]

What is needed to protect both our privacy and our common world belongs to an entirely different realm — one that is deeper, and far more elusive than the law: the realm of sensibility. Here we need to acknowledge again that the sensibility that once protected our privacy and our common world — the reticent sensibility with its keywords of shame, propriety, decorum, and decency — has been discredited and now feels anachronistic. Yet, without it, in a cruel turn of historical irony, we are largely resourceless and defenseless.”

And also this …

“When the opportunity arose to speak with Pico,” Nathan Scolaro writes, “I realised a great deal of busyness had crept back into my life since discovering his work those years ago. I noticed that I had become less thoughtful, less attentive, less generous with loved ones and my work, despite having the same 24 hours in my day. Busyness had become the enemy. But Pico, in his delightfully grounded and eloquent manner, reminded me that we can’t expect ourselves to be busy-free 100 percent of the time. It’s the nature of our modern lives that we are plugged in and ‘doing’ in contrast to ‘being’ for some proportion of the day. The key is to not let those scales tip too much to the ‘doing’ side of things, and to remember that our happiness, our clarity, our ability to be attentive and of benefit to ourselves and the world really is dependent on building that stillness into our days to slow down a little and travel in.”

[Nathan Scolaro] “I was telling a friend last night about your work, the importance of making space to go inward. And I felt her becoming really uncomfortable. She said, ‘Well I can’t.’ She’s 30. She said, ‘I’m working towards a house with my partner, I’m doing my MBA. This sounds like a journey for the privileged.’ I don’t think what you’re talking about is for the privileged, but what would you say to that? I mean, I get it: Western society, capitalist society, expects so much from us. And the idea of slowing down is challenging.”

[Pico Iyer] “Yes, that’s the problem. More and more we’re challenged and unsettled by it in part because I think we’re more and more addicted to our busyness. Our bosses expect us to be online permanently. And we feel that we’re being delinquent if we’re not constantly receiving the latest Facebook updates or CNN updates, knowing what’s up in the world.

Either we turn ourselves into machines, whereby we take in lots and lots of data but we’ve relinquished our humanity — or we just accept that the world is moving too quickly for us to keep up with every development, and we need to take a break. So I would say to your friend that if she’s thinking about the life and the home she wants to make with her partner, the best way is to take an hour off every couple of days. Take a walk around the street or along the beach. That is how she’s going to come up with the best idea of what that house and life should be. When we’re running around it’s really hard to see things clearly, especially the things that really matter to us. And it’s only by separating ourselves from this torrent that it comes into focus. I was thinking just last week that so long as you’re looking at the next appointment or the last email or the next text you want to send, there’s no way you can see your ultimate goal. Humans are not able to look at two things at the same time. Most of the day we need to think about what’s immediately before us: the baby that’s crying, the boss that’s calling us, the fun that we want to have this evening. But we don’t want to be slaves to the moment or we find 40 years have passed and we’re not in the place where we hoped we would be.”

Image for post
Image for post
“As a traveller, you see the folly of escape. I spent a lot of time travelling the world in my twenties and I’d meet people who were on the road for three or five years at a time and had lost all sense of why they were doing it. And I thought of them almost as living cautionary tales. Because they weren’t travelling to somewhere, they were travelling away from somewhere.” — Pico Iyer (Photograph made during Pico Iyer’s TEDTalk, The Art of Stillness, at TEDSalon NY2014)

More Pico Iyer in The Urgency of Slowing Down, an interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett.

“I love that word ‘absorption’ because I think that’s my definition of happiness. I think all of us know we are happiest when we forget ourselves, when we forget the time, when we lose ourselves in a beautiful piece of music or a movie or a deep conversation with a friend or an intimate encounter with someone we love. That’s our definition of happiness. Very few people feel happy racing from one text to the next to the appointment to the cell phone to the emails. If people are happy like that, that’s great. I think a lot of us have got caught up in this cycle that we don’t know how to stop and isn’t sustaining us in the deepest way. And I think we all know our outer lives are only as good as our inner lives. So to neglect our inner lives is really to incapacitate our outer lives. We don’t have so much to give to other people or the world or our job or our kids.” — Pico Iyer

“Philosophers used to look at habits as ways of contemplating who we are, what it means to have faith, and why our daily routines reveal something about the world at large,” Elias Anttila writes in A philosophical approach to routines can illuminate who we really are.

“In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the terms hexis and ethos — both translated today as ‘habit’ — to study stable qualities in people and things, especially regarding their morals and intellect. Hexis denotes the lasting characteristics of a person or thing, like the smoothness of a table or the kindness of a friend, which can guide our actions and emotions. A hexis is a characteristic, capacity or disposition that one ‘owns’; its etymology is the Greek word ekhein, the term for ownership. For Aristotle, a person’s character is ultimately a sum of their hexeis (plural).

An ethos, on the other hand, is what allows one to develop hexeis. It is both a way of life and the basic calibre of one’s personality. Ethos is what gives rise to the essential principles that help to guide moral and intellectual development. Honing hexeis out of an ethos thus takes both time and practice. This version of habit fits with the tenor of ancient Greek philosophy, which often emphasised the cultivation of virtue as a path to the ethical life.

Millennia later, in medieval Christian Europe, Aristotle’s hexis was Latinised into habitus. The translation tracks a shift away from the virtue ethics of the Ancients towards Christian morality, by which habit acquired distinctly divine connotations. In the middle ages, Christian ethics moved away from the idea of merely shaping one’s moral dispositions, and proceeded instead from the belief that ethical character was handed down by God. In this way, the desired habitus should become entwined with the exercise of Christian virtue.

The great theologian Thomas Aquinas saw habit as a vital component of spiritual life. According to his Summa Theologica (1265–1274), habitus involved a rational choice, and led the true believer to a sense of faithful freedom. By contrast, Aquinas used consuetudo to refer to the habits we acquire that inhibit this freedom: the irreligious, quotidian routines that do not actively engage with faith. Consuetudo signifies mere association and regularity, whereas habitus conveys sincere thoughtfulness and consciousness of God. Consuetudo is also where we derive the terms ‘custom’ and ‘costume’ — a lineage which suggests that the medievals considered habit to extend beyond single individuals.

Image for post
Image for post
For the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, the ancient and medieval interpretations of habit were far too limiting. Hume conceived of habit via what it empowers and enables us to do as human beings. He came to the conclusion that habit is the “cement of the universe,” which all “operations of the mind … depend on.” (Illustration based on a portrait of David Hume, painted 1766 in by Allan Ramsay)

“For the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, these ancient and medieval interpretations of habit were far too limiting. Hume conceived of habit via what it empowers and enables us to do as human beings. He came to the conclusion that habit is the ‘cement of the universe,’ which all ‘operations of the mind … depend on.’ For instance, we might throw a ball in the air and watch it rise and descend to Earth. By habit, we come to associate these actions and perceptions — the movement of our limb, the trajectory of the ball — in a way that eventually lets us grasp the relationship between cause and effect. Causality, for Hume, is little more than habitual association. Likewise language, music, relationships — any skills we use to transform experiences into something that’s useful are built from habits, he believed. Habits are thus crucial instruments that enable us to navigate the world and to understand the principles by which it operates. For Hume, habit is nothing less than the ‘great guide of human life.’

It’s clear that we ought to see habits as more than mere routines, tendencies and ticks. They encompass our identities and ethics; they teach us how to practise our faiths; if Hume is to believed, they do no less than bind the world together. Seeing habits in this new-yet-old way requires a certain conceptual and historical about-face, but this U-turn offers much more than shallow self-help. It should show us that the things we do every day aren’t just routines to be hacked, but windows through which we might glimpse who we truly are.”

From a passage of Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, the three types of specialists needed for the success of any revolution.

“Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.

The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.

The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius — a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. ‘A genius working alone,’ he says, ‘is invariably ignored as a lunatic.’

The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. ‘A person like this working alone,’ says Slazinger, ‘can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be.’

The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. ‘He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting,’ says Slazinger. ‘Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey.’

Slazinger, high as a kite, says that every successful revolution, including Abstract Expressionism, the one I took part in, had that cast of characters at the top — Pollock being the genius in our case, Lenin being the one in Russia’s, Christ being the one in Christianity’s.

He says that if you can’t get a cast like that together, you can forget changing anything in a great big way.”

Via Kottke.org

Scores of pages lavish attention on Victorine Meurent, the favorite model of Édouard Manet during the 1860s, “while ignoring her companion, the black maid who holds the copious bouquet of flowers that brighten up this severe composition. Let us now shine our light on Laure (sometimes referred to as Laura), the other model in Manet’s infamous painting of brothel life in 19th-century Paris. Her presence, along with the featured prostitute, projects the scope of modernity in Paris that accompanied Haussmann’s renovations in the 1860s,” writes Beth Gersh-Nesic in Spotlight on Laure, Manet’s Other Model in “Olympia” in the Musée d’Orsay.

“What do we know about Laure, this sparsely documented woman of color who posed for one of the most reviled artists in his day? In her 1999 book Differencing the Canon, art historian Griselda Pollock claims that she found a birth certificate for a woman named ‘Laure’ dated April 19, 1839. No race or nationality is provided. If this person was indeed Manet’s model, Laure might have been born in France to parents from a Francophone region in Africa or the Caribbean. We know that she lived at 11 rue de Vintimille, in today’s 9th arrondissement, residing on the third floor (French style), according to Manet’s jottings in an 1862 notebook. This fact has been verified by a rental agreement located in municipal archives. While Laure modelled for Olympia, she would have walked all the way to Manet’s studio at 81 rue Guyot, renamed rue Médéric, in the 17th arrondissement, about 30 minutes along Boulevard des Batignolles and Boulevard de Courcelles (given this name in 1864).”

Image for post
Image for post
Victorine Meurent’s “face and body captured the modern white woman’s claim to power through sexual congress: not only the physical but also the mental. She dared to stare with a touch of arrogance from a body unfettered by clothing (society’s armor).” — Olympia (1863), by Édouard Manet (Collection of Musée d’Orsay)
Image for post
Image for post
A Negress, also known as Portrait of Laure, […] may be a preparatory sketch for Olympia’s black maid or a genuine attempt to individualize this ‘beautiful negress,’ as Manet remarked in his notes. Here Manet studies Laure’s face, struggling to apply the right tones to her dark complexion.” — Laure (aka La Négresse, 1862–5), by Édouard Manet (® All Right Reserved/Pinacoteca Gianni e Marella Agnelli)

“In Children in the Tuileries [see below], Manet placed her in a situation that seems quite familiar to an artist from the upper class: well-dressed children frolicking through the park with a governess or older sibling overseeing their every move. Children in the Tuileries seems to anticipate Manet’s larger work Concert in the Tuileries of 1862, wherein no servants (therefore no women or men of color) appear within our point of view. The difference between the two paintings marks the difference in social occasions. Daily romps in the Tuileries would be supervised by babysitters, whereas concerts offered social networking. The fashionable clothing tells it all,” Gersh-Nesic writes.

“In Children, we notice a slender black tree separates a black nanny and her young charge from a group of well-dressed bourgeois children who walk in unison with their backs to the audience, overlapping in white pleated frocks like modernized Greek muses. They are female and harmonious, connected by gender, class and painted surfaces. On the other side of the tree, Manet’s integrates Laure’s soft pastel pink dress into the creamy pyramid of her little client whose sprightly cocked hat is rendered simply in black and brown — a brown that blends into her nanny’s exposed arm. In paint and in life, Manet shows us that they belong to each other. Aware that the central group of girls commands the viewers’ attention, Manet cleverly enlivened the right edge with Laure’s deep rose-colored turban, saving her from pictorial oblivion. What might we glean from this decision? Is Laure a social indicator (a ‘marker’ art historians tend to say these days)? Yes, she conveys an aspect of Manet’s interpretation of urban modernity: the park, the fashionably dressed occupants, and the influx of non-white immigrants into the community, bringing into the homogenous character of France this new element of diversity. Iconographically, Laure’s separation from the group reminds us that the new ‘post-slavery’ black in France may seem integrated into modern Paris, but she is still marginalized and not fully assimilated into French society, despite her western clothing.”

Image for post
Image for post
“We believe that Laure sat for Manet as early as 1861, beginning with ‘Children in the Tuileries’ […]. Some art historians claim that he met her while working as a nanny. Eunice Lipton imaged the situation differently, describing Laure as a friend of Victorine Meurent who recommended her to Manet for the painting. Another possibility may be that Laure modeled for the students in Thomas Couture’s atelier, where Manet trained from 1850–1856.” — Children in the Tuileries Gardens (c. 1861–2), by Édouard Manet (collection of Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art)
Image for post
Image for post
“After decades of male dominance on the newsstand, Ms Holmes made an irresistible cover story. She was the bright young upstart disrupting an ugly oligopoly of laboratories that were allegedly blocking US citizens’ quest to find out about their own health. This tale — which she told repeatedly at conferences, on television, and in press interviews — was one many people, journalists included, wanted to believe,” Andrew Hill writes in Fresh blood: why everyone fell for Theranos. (Photograph by Jenny Hueston for The New Yorker)

“The most relevant example of White Feminism in this case is Facebook executive, Sheryl Sandberg’s, ‘lean in’ brand of hypercapitalist feminism. Feminists and womanists of color criticized the elitist, exclusive, corporatist framing of ‘lean in’ feminism, but they were largely ignored as Sandberg was championed by establishment media. Facebook’s recent troubles regarding the company’s myriad ethical abuses have some changing their tune. Nevertheless, Sandberg’s philosophy and how heavily it was promoted inform why [Elizabeth] Holmes became the poster child for success in tech. White Feminists want to shatter the glass ceiling of tech founding, and Holmes looked like their best bet to do it. So, the questions that should have been asked weren’t. The vetting that should have taken place didn’t. Holmes was what the Silicon Valley boys club she’d charmed her way into and the White Feminists looking for a heroine wanted, so she’s what they got, and they foisted her and her hucksterism onto the rest of us.” — Kitanya Harrison in Elizabeth Holmes and the Dangers of White Feminism

Thank you for reading and Random finds will be back next week. If fortune allows, of course.

Written by

helping leaders navigate complexity with confidence & clarity of thought | varius multiplex multiformis

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store