Monthly Archives: July 2011

Rick Mercer & Canadian Identity


[I wrote this for a writing contest a few years ago, with the theme ‘the greatest Canadian’.]

In medieval times, the opinion of the court jester was sought by royalty for his view on their decision and was listened to in an open and respectful manner. This may seem odd to some, but consider: very often the royal advisors were parasitic profiteers, disregarding the greater good in favour of their own ends. The jester was given permission to parody any royal proposals made, revealing their absurdities and disadvantages―in effect, expounding a disinterested point of view.[1] The jester was an invaluable asset to the royal courts, and we Canadians have a fitting equivalent.

Rick Mercer may be looked down upon by some as being superfluous to society, yet his impact on the scope of Canadian culture must not be underestimated. As he himself has said, more Canadians receive their information regarding Canadian politics from his show than from CBC News[2]. Now of course, some may view this statistic as shameful, as evidence of the deteriorating intellectual fabric of our generation. When considering the hectic lives of Canada’s citizens, however, can one really point a finger? After a day of work, caring for children, and the vast array of obligatory duties which each Canadian must inevitably endure, must society also expect them to submit to the operose dronings of bleak, one-dimensional propaganda?[3] Rick Mercer provides a genuinely entertaining self and societal deprecation as well as informative news outlet; an effective multitasking for a stressed population which might otherwise be tempted to tune in to one of the surfeit of inane alternatives. Mr. Mercer provides accommodation for the vast demographic which might otherwise remain uninformed of Canada’s perspective of world events as well as its own political ineptitudes.

Truly, Rick Mercer is one of the great Canadian social critics, and is an invaluable blessing to Canadian culture.

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[1]: Oech, R. (1983). A Whack on the Side of the Head. New York: Warner Books.
[2]: I’m not sure of the specific episode on which Mercer says this, but I saw it myself.
[3]: This is extreme, of course, to the point of being bombastic, but at the time of writing I had just watched an documentary on Fox News which seemed to justify such sentiments.

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Since writing this, my thoughts related to Mercer have become more articulate, though I doubt I could compress them into 300 words. Read the rest of this entry

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Structuralism: An Extremely Short Introduction

[These are my notes for a presentation I made on Structuralism a couple years ago for an assignment on schools of thought related to literature, though I admittedly don’t dwell on literature at all. The presentation is about as accessible as I could make it, though many of my classmates found it overly complicated. Most of the material is from the book European Intellectual History Since 1789 by N. Roland Stromberg, the “Structuralism” entry in the Colliers Encyclopedia, and some websites that I have since forgotten. For a magnificent & extremely accessible comparison of structuralism to poststructuralism (the best I have read on the topic), I direct the reader to John Lye’s essay Some Post-Structural Assumptions here.]

What Is Structuralism?

  • Philosophy/Sociology/Anthropology movement rising to prominence in the late 1950s-early 1960s (especially in France), reaching a peak in the later 1960s.
  • Successor to existentialism as a fashion in French ideas. Provided a cool, detached, objective, antihistorical view.
  • Specialized in the linguistic analysis of social ‘codes’, versus the frenetic subjectivism & romanticism of the existentialists.
  • Though roots were in linguistics, it became a mode/method of thought that could be used almost anywhere, thus transcending specialization.
  • Applied to such fields as anthropology (myth, kinship systems), literary criticism, sociology, & psychology.

How Does It Work?

  1. Analysis of patterns in language & media, taking into account the structure + the human faculties of comprehension.
  2. Antihumanism: the abolishment of the individual. The boundaries of language force speakers to think in certain ways, thus is it so irrational to assume that these boundaries affect action as well?
  3. Determinism: People are prisoners of language and cannot escape, no more than a physicist can find an observation point outside of nature.
  4. Consideration of clothing, etiquette, myth, gesture, etc., as ‘languages’; less focus on content, more on patterns & structure.
  5. However, offered a new principle of certainty, a “science of the permanent” (Claude Lévi-Strauss).
  6. Johannes Weissinger marked this as one of the most extraordinary of modern intellectual trends, describing it as “the penetration of mathematics, mathematical methods, and above all the mathematical way of thinking, into areas which previously appeared to be closed to it.”

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A Shout-out to Surplus Thought


Sometime last week I went through the archives of a brilliant blog called Surplus Thought. Sadly, it is no longer active; if it were, I would want to be one of its contributors. It blends Lacanian Marxism with an activist conscience, specifically concerning the nation of Turkey. I highly recommend it to those looking for an accessible blend of theory & economics.

In particular, I want to bring attention to a three-part series which looks at the economics & politics of health care in terms of Lacan’s four discourses, plus his male & female sexuation formulas. It was written in 2007, but seems to be still quite relevant, especially given the recent debate in the USA about ‘Obamacare’. What it lacks in abstruseness it makes up for in accessibility, so that someone like me who has neither read The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (yet) nor researched the American health care industry, can understand it. Its initial entry is called Health Care and the Community Economy: Towards an Ethics of Surplus and Geography of Sufficiency and can be located here. Parts II & III can be located here and here, respectively. (Note: the links at the bottom of each essay don’t work.)

In short, these are exactly the sort of essays that I want to be able to write. I want to extend my deepest thanks to Stephen Healy, the author of the aforementioned essays, as well as his coauthors; it’s thanks to you and other people like yourselves, who are able to make the driest elements of economics ‘sexy’ by injecting them with recondite theory, that people like myself who would much rather focus on abstractions rather than particulars are given an excuse to learn about these otherwise dreary subjects.

A Primer on Neuromarketing


Neuromarketing is one of the latest paradigms making itself felt in the sphere of marketing. Its premise is simple: given the vast amount of inaccuracy in data-collecting methods (e.g. disparities between stated preference in surveys & revealed preference in purchasing), a more objective means of assessing consumer responses is to use neurotechnology to get straight to the heart of the consumer. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Electroencephalography (EEG) are used while exposing consumers to products and advertisements, and their cognitive responses are recorded and interpreted. Significant progress has been made, but due to the current expense of neurotechnology (not to mention the legal issues surrounding it, as in the case of France), neuromarketing companies are relatively scarce, with 13 worldwide as of 2007. One of the more prominent companies, NeuroCo, charged $90,000 per study in 2005 (Mucha, 2005: 2-3). Nevertheless, many powerful companies have begun to enlist the service of neuromarketers, such as Hewlett-Packard, Frito-Lay, Google, Motorola, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Nestlé, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, L’Oréal, and Fox, for issues ranging from the optimal color of packaging to the effectiveness of movie trailers. Inevitably, the widening availability of such technologies has lead to much bombast and panic, particularly fears about locating a ‘buy button’ in the consumer’s mind, forcing them to buy things they don’t need or to eat until they’re obese. In this essay I hope to briefly explain the technology in use by neuromarketers, to address some of the fears (groundless and justified) about neuromarketing, and to highlight some cases of neuromarketing in practice.
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Why The French Treat Their Intellectuals Like Americans Treat Their Rock Stars

It will strike the average person as fairly odd that France and America have such different forms of cultural icon, and that seemingly opposite values can prevail among youth of different cultures at the same point in history. Though I am not a historian of French or American culture, McLuhan’s media theory offers a satisfactory answer based solely on formal concerns, since the content of a medium (as McLuhan expertly shows) is auxiliary to the true reason for its popularity, i.e. its purely formal attributes.

Around roughly the same time period (around the 1950s, give or take a decade), the youth culture of both France and America took a drastic turn from what preceded it. McLuhan explains that American culture since its formation was traditionally literate (i.e. raised on newspapers, literature, etc., and concomitant linearity & compartmentalization of thought), as opposed to the culture of France, which was traditionally oral. From this basic description is the key to understanding this divergence. For whatever reason, the younger generation decided to rebel against the predominant media in their cultures. In doing so, these two cultures exchanged media forms, so to speak. While rock stars exemplified the nonlinear, erratic thinking of electric culture to the Americans, intellectuals (Sartre, say, or Camus) exemplify literate thinking by their sustained themes (angst, absurdity), their emphasis on lebensprojekt* (or better yet, whatever the inverse of this would be, but retaining its lifelong, linear manner), and their general abstruseness (i.e. one must read their work closely, whereas in oral transmission of information clarity & ease are essential).

Desmond Morris, in his book The Naked Ape (pg. 105), explains that the sociobiological reason for young women to scream and go into hysterics at music concerts (“They not only scream, they also grip their own and one another’s bodies, they writhe, they moan, they cover their faces and they pull at their hair”) is that they (unconsciously) desire to show their peers how they have matured to the point of being able to process complex emotions. As evidence of this thesis, he notes that if a teenage girl were to confront a rock star while on her own, it would never occur to her to scream at him. It is not at all difficult to switch the medium around in this case, and to see that reading (mainly literature, and perhaps some philosophy) could justly serve this end, provided that enough conspicuous consumption (or discourse about what each youth has been reading lately) occurs that one’s choice of reading material can be adequately broadcast to one’s peers.

Thus we see that youth possess a sociobiological need to display to their peers their developing emotional maturity, which must be satisfied one way or another. Looking at American and French culture from a purely formal perspective, then, we see that their situation is the same. Each culture merely had a different historical situation (in America, mass literacy, in France, oral culture) to rebel against.

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*[German] Work to which one has devoted one’s whole life.

TL;DR

  • It may seem strange that the youth of these two cultures could have such different interests, but actually they’re not as different as they first seem.
  • As Marshall McLuhan shows, exposure to different types of media motivates different types of thought. People raised on books will think in a linear, compartmentalized, and mechanistic manner. People raised on television and music will think in a more nonlinear, transdisciplinary, and ‘organic’ manner.
  • Traditionally, America was characterized by its ‘print culture’, whereas France was characterized by its ‘oral culture’.
  • Around the mid-20th century, the youth of both cultures rebelled against the traditional mindsets of their respective cultures. 
  • Music in America and literature/philosophy in France fulfill the same need, i.e. for teenagers to display to peers their ability to process complex emotions.

The Enneagram, A Constellation of the Real

The Enneagram is another fascinating heuristic system of proletarian science which has unjustly not received mainstream acceptance. The Enneagram, as its name implies, states that every person fits into one of nine categories, which are simply denoted by numbers. Everyone also has a secondary type, which is the number either before or after that of one’s primary type (e.g. a 5-4, a 6-7). Of course, such a simple schema hardly does justice to the complexity of the human psyche, so there’s an extra twist. Types, when their mental health deteriorates, display the characteristics of another type: the order is 1-4-2-8-5-7-1 and 9-6-3-9, so an 8 will deteriorate to a 5, etc. Also, when each type reaches a height of mental health, they will exhibit characteristics of the other adjacent type in the aforementioned list, ascending in the reverse order, so a 5 would become an 8, etc. Don Richard Riso in his book Personality Types describes each type in terms of stages of mental health, and the results are remarkable.

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Proletarian Science: Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages

I find it remarkable how a conceptual system as empirically reliable as Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages has not been adopted into mainstream pedagogy. I can only appeal to my own experience (as well as the many case studies by Chapman), and for the purposes of this essay take its empirical validity as a premise. In doing so, I hope to explain the significance of this theory, to explain how it is distinguished from other intellectual theories, and to call such correct but ‘unproved’ conceptual systems ‘proletarian science’.

Dr. Chapman is not a typical intellectual. Rather than working in academia, he developed his conceptual system on the field during his practice of marriage counselling (in a situation similar to that of Freud), in order to explain the goings-on and oft-repeated explanations of why a spouse felt that their partner no longer loved them. Chapman eventually discovered a limited number of categories for a person’s manner of expressing affection, and found that each person tended toward one (sometimes two: ‘bilingualism’) of these categories at the exclusion of the others. However, because the predominant category became entrenched in each spouse’s behaviour (and because this choice was entirely unconscious), many spouses did not know how to extend their methods of expressing affection so as to address the other person’s category. Thus, marriage problems resulted: the behaviours which had once occurred naturally during courtship (e.g. buying flowers, taking walks) no longer occurred, and each spouse felt that the other no longer loved them.

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