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One of modern age’s great obsessions is the desire for simplicity.  You see this concept everywhere—lifestyle gurus sell millions of books about simplifying your life.  Hollywood blockbusters are about salt-of-the-earth country boys with a monosyllabic moral code who become action heroes and easily defeat the bad guys. TED talks distill data science into a short anecdote from primary school.  The infatuation for simplicity is omnipresent—in fad diets, in investment strategies, in household management, above all else, in politics (boy howdy is the desire to make things simple running rampant in politics!).

This is a shame: for simplicity is a fallacy.  Things are not simple at all.  Generally, the more one studies a field, the more one realizes how complicated, nuanced, self-contradictory, and messy that field is. A lead ball and a feather fall at the same rate…except in the real world where they fall so differently that thermodynamics and gravity are hidden. History is not one all-important person [Napoleon or Alexander the Great, for example] saying “I will accomplish X”: it is countless millions upon millions of people trying to accomplish innumerable conflicting goals in opposition to each other (all while churches, nation states, guilds, secret societies, kingpriests, banks, and other strange cabals work on their own conflicting agendas).  In college I was excited to take cell biology and learn about the simple building blocks that life is made of…until the professor came in and wrote the Krebs cycle on the board as the first thing.  That was the first ten minutes! The rest of the class was learning how wrong the “simple” elegant metabolism cycle (below) can go when you start adding new chemicals.

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Simplicity is not real except as a concept. And it is a dangerous concept! The purpose of today’s post is not to teach you the Krebs cycle (as if I could) or to encompass all of history.  Instead we are pushing back at simplicity by striking at minimalism–the art form which espouses reductive simplicity.

Why am I attacking minimalism instead of other confidence tricks based around the illusion of simplicity? Art is the wellspring that ideas come from.  Concepts that bubble up in a font on Mount Parnassus are sanctified by the muses (or I guess these days by Jerry Saltz) and then trickle into other fields.  To start to make some headway in this worldwide morass we are in, we need to let go of some of these illusions about simple being better.  To start with that we need to go back to minimalism’s aesthetic roots in modern art.

The reason art is so germinal is because it is a place of illusions and magic.  The most fantastic imaginings can be real there.  Do you not like to walk?  You can paint everyone as flying! Are you sad that most of the creatures that ever existed have gone extinct? Just draw them as living together in Super Eden! Do you chafe at the Byzantine organic chemistry level complexity of, well, everything…just draw it as ridiculously simple! And artists have certainly simplified.  There are many artists who became influential just painting white canvases: Malevich, Martin, Baer, Albers, Ryman…the list goes on and on.

Arguably some of these works were made to express the same concepts I am expressing here.  Simplicity is not simple.  That infamous white canvas “Bridge” by Robert Ryman (1982, pictured below) has probably engendered more complex philosophical art essays than just about any artwork from the seventies/eighties.  Looking at a pure white canvas makes you realize that white can be warm or it can be cold. White can have a variety of textures and microdetails…to say nothing of the dense world of allusions it opens up.  Thinking about the nature of white begins to raise troubling questions about cognition, physics, and the psychology behind how we see things.

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But sadly these meanings have not translated well as Minimalism the art movement has flowed into minimalism the cultural phenomena (frankly I think the minimalism wing in the art museums might be a bit of a carnival trick too, to get people laughing and talking not to impress them with the sublime).

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The minimalist aesthetic has been a growing problem in America for decades.  Any New Yorker will instantly recognize the prestige look of the present moment—off-white walls, ugly blocky furniture made of blonde wood and neutral fabric, recess lighting, lots of glass & steel, monochromatic accents, and minimalist artwork.  To obtain the image at the top of this paragraph, I went to Google and image searched “beautiful apartment” and the results were hundreds of images of identical white rooms with what seems like the same furniture set.  It is like being trapped inside a display refrigerator at Sears (does that place still exist?).  Is this beautiful? Obviously not, but it is cheap and simple for developers to craft.

I feel like these rooms are like the GUI of a computer—they are seemingly simple, but they are really designed by vast corporate interests to sell things (and also there are vast worlds of complexity, disorder, and mess crammed into storage, just out of sight).  Minimalism look good on screens—it is simple enough to be comprehensible even in a thumbnail so you can sell it online (no need for photoshopping). Also minimalism is like a carnival barker’s trick or an infomercial pitch in another way too.  Its simplicity makes it easy to sell.

And here is where we get to the real heart of minimalism.  It is commercially successful. That Ryman painting a few paragraphs back sold in 2015 for $20.6 million!  We already know how well Kondo’s works about decluttering your life sell.  The “clean” diet kills people because it lacks sufficient nutrients for human beings, but people adhere to it with religious fervor even when MDs beg them not to.

Our world is so complicated and baffling that the allure of simplicity is an enticement beyond any other.  Yet it is salesman’s con job.  Don’t let people convince you that white paintings have a meaning that supersedes all other art or that empty rooms are best.  Simple solutions in politics tend to be impossible and dangerous. Simple diets will kill you.  I wish I had said my thesis more simply, rather than writing such a winding narrative to say such a straightforward thing.  Anything of beguiling simplicity is almost certainly a lie.

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Back during the sixties, a pair of psychologists (Seligman and Maier) at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a sadistic animal study in order to learn more about depression. And they did find out a great deal about depression…and about learning, conditioning, the nature of will, and many other important things. Their experiments were troubling on all sorts of levels. Yet even though thinking about this is painful, we need to do so, because what they learned by torturing dogs into near-catatonic apathy applies very directly to us as well.

OK, here is the basis of the experiment: groups of dogs were placed in restraint harnesses with access to a lever which they could activate with their paws. Group 1 dogs were put in the harness and then nothing happened and they were released…they were the control group I suppose. Group 2 dogs were put in the restraints and given a painful electric shock—which they could stop by pushing the lever. Group 3 dogs were put in restraints and shocked seemingly at random. Group 3 dogs were helpless to escape their predicament: the lever did nothing.

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After sufficient conditioning (I imagine an agent of Hydra saying that phrase in a faux German accent), the dogs were removed from the harnesses and put in a box apparatus with an electric floor. The floor would start shocking the dogs, but they could escape by leaping over a low threshold or finding a hidden panel or what-have-you. Innocent Group 1 dogs were appalled at human perfidy, but quickly found a way out of the electrified box apparatus! Group 2 dogs knew they could change their fate and they too quickly found a way to escape the painful box. They bounded around until they got out. Group 3 dogs, however, had been taught that their actions were meaningless and so their response was heartbreakingly sad: they just lay down on the dreadful electrified floor to take their shocks and whine in misery.

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The researchers discovered that the group 3 dogs were fundamentally broken. They could not be threatened or cajoled to jump over the barrier. Only by literally moving the dog’s limbs in the correct motions and holding the creature upright could the animals be taught to escape the electrified floor (it should be obvious that these dogs were thoroughly conditioned till they were effectively destroyed, and, of course the animals used in this study—and its subsequent iterations—were destroyed after being so relentlessly abused). These studies worked the same way on other animals and in other iterations which you can look up on your own if you so like.

So what did we learn from all this? People (or other similar organisms) who have been subject to abuse and neglect have been taught not to seek a way out of their predicament—even when the way is so obvious as to be self-evident. Frustratingly it seems like those infuriating optimists who are always going around saying “you make your own luck” and “always look on the bright side” and suchlike twaddle are right…sort of. A person’s way of explaining the world to himself matters greatly in how he then tries to deal with that world. What truly matters seems to be perceived control over the situation—or perceived lack of control. Neurophysiologists even discovered the biological circuitry of learned helplessness—mood and learning affect each other in discernible chemical patterns in the brain. The wrong feedback loop can lead to crippling anxiety-related emotional disorders—as seen in the group 3 dogs (interestingly, physical exercise can help break this feedback loop, so if you end up in prison camp, or being tortured by the Viet Cong, or trapped in a hall of evil mirrors, you had better quickly start getting fit!).

 

Plus, if you get buff enough, you could just physically bust free

Plus, if you get buff enough, you could just physically bust free

Of course a philosopher would correctly point out that none of the dogs in any of the three groups ever truly had any control—it was always an illusion fostered by godlike experimenters. In our world of powerful machines, giant corporations, ineluctable plate tectonics, false democracy, and billions upon billions of hungry greedy antagonistic humans, control is likewise an illusion, but a very important one! Maybe I should not even have included this paragraph, so that we can all can pretend we have some modicum of agency in the actual world.

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Speaking of the true nature of the world, the real lesson of the dog study is short and hard. Life is a series of shocking boxes box and we need to keep bounding around banging on the walls all the time to get anywhere. Maybe the way forward is there and maybe not, but you had better believe with all your heart that it is…and that your actions have meaning. Otherwise you might as well just lie down on the floor and die.

An artist’s conception of the shen creating illusions

Chinese mythology features numerous animal-spirits with magical powers.  One of the most bizarre is a shen—a giant clam/mollusk monster capable of creating illusory landscapes and cities.  Classical Chinese texts use the word “shen” to describe large bivalve mollusks such as oysters, clams, or mussels; and, indeed, such shells seem to have had an (unknown) magical usage in funerals and sacrifices.  Later texts emphasized the Shen as a mythical giant oyster/clam which was the source of huge magical pearls.  By the middle ages the shen had evolved into its current manifestation—an immense clam-like spirit creature which could blow bubbles from its tubes which gave the illusion of towering cities and fantastical fairylands.

 

The main character of the manga series “Naruto” fights a Shen (or at least I think that’s what is going on here)

I wish I could write more about the shen—where it came from, what it wants, and so forth, but there isn’t much information on the beast.  Some sources seem to suggest that it is affiliated with dragons (the protean universal mythological being of Chinese culture) or with nāgas—magical serpent people.  When gifted with magical powers of illusion these beings are imagined to hide themselves as big green clams (from which base they weave fairy-like illusions for unknown purposes).  Slightly more practical individuals have explained the illusory cities supposedly produced by the shen as the Fata Morgana, an optic illusion caused by thermal inversion which distorts ships, islands, and detritus at the edge of the offing into weird grotesque towers and blobs.  If anybody knows anything else about the mysterious shen I would love to hear it!

A distant boat distorted into a weird monolith by Fata Morgana

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  So reads the thunderous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence–probably the finest thing Thomas Jefferson ever wrote.  It is a cornerstone not just of the American spirit but of worldwide humanist thought.  It is one of the most influential sentences ever written in English.  National political discourse rightly concentrates on the first and second inalienable rights: life and liberty (for powerful interests conspire against both in every era).  The popular imagination however seizes on the last part of the sentence: “the pursuit of happiness” is fundamental to our lives, yet even the phrasing betrays a certain elusory and unattainable quality to the concept.  “Pursuit” suggests that felicity, contentment, and joy are will-of-the-wisps which can be chased but never caught.  This is a sobering way of looking at happiness, but it is an important concept to explore–for the well-known roads to happiness are indeed dangerously illusory.  Pleasure is a physiological goad pushing us toward survival and reproduction (and, in a world of boundless plenty, the pursuit of pleasure has become dangerously untethered from the dictates it was originally meant to serve).  Accomplishment is a tread-mill which never yields the desired results—a mountain with no top.  Possessions do not satisfy. Relationships are as fragile as soap bubbles.  So what is happiness anyway?  Is there a meaningful way to succinctly address a subject which has tormented the rich, wise, and powerful as much as the poor, the ignorant, and the oppressed.  Can we summarize a quest which has baffled sybarites, monks, philosophers, kings, and saints?

A rudimentary approach to happiness is to equate happiness with physical pleasure. Such a voluptuary outlook is, after all, based on fundamental biological demands.  We crave sweets and rich savory foods for a reason.  When we were hunter-gatherers (which, from an evolutionary perspective, was only a short time ago) we needed such things to survive famines and shortages.  Our eyes lustfully seek out beautiful human forms because of a billion year old imperative from our genes. Gambling too was a path to success.  The chief who took his clan on a dangerous trip across an unknown channel might be killed, but he might also find an untouched land filled with resources.  We all descend from such risk-takers.  Even our troubles with intoxicants and sundry addictive substances have evolutionary underpinnings. We need an internal carrot and stick to help us diagnose what is good for us and what is not.  Certain chemicals happen to touch the reward and pleasure parts of our brain (or block pain comprehension) in ways that short-circuit this diagnostic.

The Hunter Gatherer (Todd Schorr, 1998, acrylic on canvas)

The basic drives that create resilient, successful hunter gatherers can be disastrous in a world filled with superabundant processed food, internet porn, online gambling, and high-tension drugs.  Our genotype is at odds with the world we have created.  Physical pleasure does not lead to happiness. In an agricultural and industrialized world it makes us fat, unhealthy, addicted, and jaded.

So we must walk a more intense road and pursue the disciplined calculating path of ambition.  In the contemporary world this hinges on trade. Imagine a person who is the perfect epitome of free-market capitalism.  Such an individual realizes that literally everything is a trade.  Even romantic relationships are a market of sorts–where one wants to “buy low and sell high” thus maximizing a limited set of appealing characteristics in exchange for the most desirable mate.  In fact economists call people who obsessively seek the best option in every circumstance “maximizers.”   They seek the best toothpaste, cars, investments, careers, and spouses.  A moment of reflection will demonstrate that Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and Hollywood are all industries which are set up to create maximizers.  The idea that we must have the best of all choices is an underpinning of our culture.  What a shame that social scientists have discovered that maximizers are chronically unhappy when compared with people who care less about making the perfect choice in every circumstance.  The perfect car gets a dinged fender (or another richer banker buys a fancier model).  The perfect investment shoots up and falls apart.  The perfect relationship comes apart as both parties change.

Thanks to a multitude of choice we are stuck with a bizarre false consciousness that the perfect choice will make us happy. This thought-provoking essay explores the emotional traps inherent in a society with too much choice (it will appeal to fellow New Yorkers for making the Big Apple seem like the ultimate ambiguous trade).

Pleasure, ambition, and material goods all fail as sources of happiness (indeed they fail in a way which hints darkly as the insufficiency of romantic love). We turn toward more abstract virtues—devotion, altruism, curiosity.  Here, at last we find people who seem happy—who are not caught on a cruel tread-mill where gaining a cherished objective causes them to become disillusioned with that objective.  What is the commonality between the otherworldly promises of religion, the struggles of philanthropy, and the burning quest for knowledge?

The Buddhist Road to Nirvana

The devout are directed to live a certain way by sources which they believe to be of supernatural or spiritual origin.  The Anabaptist, the Sufi, the Buddhist monk, all strive for perfection of a sort which will be rewarded beyond death. Heaven and Nirvana give meaning to their everyday trials and tribulations (even if the next world might just be another illusion).  It vexes me to acknowledge that happiness can be discovered in such a system, and yet I have met faithful people who have convinced me that such is the case.  Additionally (unless you worship a capricious deity of death), the religious viewpoint, although apt to concentrate overmuch on imaginary/unknowable goals also inclines toward helping others.

People dedicated to helping others, sometimes feel underappreciated or abused, however, in surveys they report feeling more content with life than the hard-charging (well-recompensed) masters of international finance.  The world always suffers from poverty and disease and misery.  Environmental devastation is widespread. Yet even in the face of such setbacks, the altruists continue forward.  They busy themselves by making something worthwhile or helping others.  Like Vishnu, their purpose is to try to preserve the world from destruction. These are all powerful and noble motivations.  Struggling to better the world is a struggle with no end, but it is a hero’s quest and bears its own rewards.

Finally there are those who find happiness battling ignorance. Curiosity–the virtue of the scientist and the philosopher–causes humankind to continuously play with fire and put our fingers in the light sockets of the universe.  Struggling for provable answers to questions about nature is the foremost quest of life.   The long quest for comprehension of the world sometimes yields stunning insights into the universe but more often it leads to more tortuous questions.  It is unknown whether science has any ultimate answers, but if so they are in the distant future and more questions continue to mount up.

Sir Frederick William Herschel Discovering Infrared Electromagnetic Radiation

Each of these routes to happiness shares a common trait: anticipation.  Zealots imagine the pleasures and consummate perfection of the next world.  The do-gooder toils for the future betterment of humankind and finds pleasure in a child’s smile or a rescued species of butterfly.  The physicist, mathematician, and natural scientist posit hypotheses which may take lifetimes to unravel—and which may indeed be proven spectacularly wrong.  However anticipating a future outcome and working towards it—even if it never comes—maybe especially if it never comes–seems to incline people toward fulfillment.

The question of what happiness is and how to find it thus boils down to anticipation. Find something worth living for and fight for it, even though the way is lost and the light is occluded!  The phrasing of the Declaration of Independence was not a crafty way for Thomas Jefferson to hint that we were never meant to actually capture felicity, it was an instructional hint as to how to find meaning and happiness in life. Keep up the pursuit! The search itself is the answer.  Consummation is just another illusion.

Last night my roommate told me about bitcoins, a digital currency created two years ago by Satoshi Nakamoto, a shadowy entity who may be a financier, a programmer, or an anarchist (or he/she/it may not even be a person at all).  The name “bitcoins” also refers to the software and built-in encryption features which allow the “coins” to be anonymously transferred while still retaining whatever “realness” they have.  The concept initially filled me with unreasoning anger, but thinking about bitcoins has caused me to reflect more deeply on the notional nature of all money.  Most dollars are no more real than bitcoins: only a tiny fraction of American legal tender exists in the real world (as the paper scraps or metal disks found in cash registers, laundry machines, money clips, dancers’ garters, underground hoards, piggy banks and what have you).  The majority of money is ones and zeros zipping through huge servers run by large financial institutions–not really that different from bitcoins (although the dollar is backed by lots of important guys in suits and by a huge military rather than by the personal assurances of a Japanese cyberpunk shadowspawn).

Stone Money of Yap

Instead of thinking about today’s national currencies I like to reflect on currencies based on real objects but still not pegged to any use value.  The rather beautiful giant stone coins of Yap are probably the most well-known example of such money, however, a more interesting and widespread example is provided by mollusk shells–which have been used as a medium of exchange by different societies worldwide throughout history.  Over three thousand years ago the Chinese were using cowry shells as currency. It is said that the classical Chinese character for money was the same as for cowry (I am going to leave Chinese scholars to argue over the actual characters—trying to follow the vagaries of Chinese etymology left my head spinning).  In Thailand the “bia” was a unit worth 1⁄6400 Baht and was literally a cowry (which was also a common counter used in gambling).  On the East Cost of the United States, Iroquois and Algonquian tribesmen utilized “wampum” belts manufactured from littleneck clams to solidify treaties or as exchange for personal transactions.  Tribes of the Pacific Northwest utilized tusk shells or scaphopods for their shell money.  Different tribes of Australian aboriginal people utilized different shells as money and often regarded the money shells from other tribes as worthless.  Other examples of shell currency are numerous and come from all parts of the world, but one is particularly instructive.

A living Being--the Egg Cowry (Calpurnus verrucosus)

The most infamous use of shell currency may also have been the most complicated and lucrative. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries competing Dutch, Portuguese, English, and French slave traders utilized cowry shells as a common medium of exchange (among several others) to buy slaves along the African coast.  The slaves were sold by local rulers who obtained them in internecine tribal wars or by Arab merchants who specialized in mass kidnappings. The cowrie shells used in such transactions originated from the Maldives and later from Zanzibar.  They were carried to the Mediterranean and to the Sahara by Arab traders and to Europe by merchants from the miscellaneous colonial powers. The potential “mark-up” on such shells was tremendous since one could obtain then easily from living snails in the Indian Ocean and then exchange them for living people in the Bight of Benin.

Cowry Shells being used as Money by an Arab Trader ( Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, 1845, print)

My personal feelings about international trade are not as negative as this grim historical example would seem to indicate (I feel that today global trade is, on balance, more likely to deliver people from slavery than into it). However I feel that this example is a good metaphor for the central mystery of money.  Cowry shells are pretty and have been used for rituals, games, and adornments for a long time–but their value does not seem intrinsic in any special way–except maybe to living cowries.  Indeed the monetized mystique such shells had in the eighteenth century is long gone: I found many web sites which will sell you barrels of money cowrie shells for next to nothing. What is the magic that makes shells worth a human life in one era and a quasi-worthless novelty in another?  I have no answer other than to point at the strange epic that is history.  I suspect that the smug Federal Reserve Board members discontentedly shaking their heads at the tone of this article do not have one either.  Money is a fairly obvious illusion…and yet you will never live your life outside its thrall.

Money Cowry Shells (Shells of Monetaria moneta)

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