Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fast/Slow Sculpture

[Originally posted to We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party]

Several years ago, I was walking up Folger Avenue towards San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. The University of California owns a building that sits between Folger and 67 St. on San Pablo Avenue, or at least they did. They’ve been trying to sell it recently, and I’m not current on its status, but they still occupy a lot of it. The building itself is huge, and, as I understand it, actually straddles the boundaries of not just Berkeley and Oakland, but also Emeryville.

I was headed toward the offices of a non-profit that I was involved with at the time (that backstory is ‘way too complicated), but my path took me by the U.C. Berkeley surplus and overstock sales area, at 1000 Folger St., where they have auctions every Tuesday and Thursday. So there are often people loading stuff into trucks, vans, and whatever, starting at about 9 A.M. on those two days each week. There’s a lot of old surplus computer stuff that gets sold that way.

I was carrying a briefcase, which isn’t important to the story, but it’s part of the “sense memory.” I was passing by a guy who was loading a lot of surplus computer stuff into a panel truck, just as the pile of stuff he’d loaded shifted and began to topple towards him.

The wall of electronics included a lot of monitors. Imploding CRTs and glass everywhere: not so good. I stepped in and put my shoulder in an appropriate spot and halted the avalanche. I looked at the guy, who had an interesting combination of gratitude and terror on his face. I realized that he had no idea what to do next, as we were both holding up a wall of computer monitors that was trying to fall.

Okay, here’s where I get to brag a little. There’s a cluster of mental aptitudes that gets called things like “3-D visualization” and “geometrical intuition” and like that. I am nearly off the charts in this particular cluster of aptitudes. I can pack a car trunk or a suitcase like you wouldn’t believe, and I would have made a very good mechanical engineer.

So I shifted my body to where I was doing almost all of the job of keeping the stuff from falling, and I began giving him directions. Move that one over there. Now take that one down and put it one the ground. Now that one, no not that one, the other one. And so forth. We deconstructed the unstable pile in fairly short order, then I began helping him put the stuff back into a better arrangement, one that wouldn’t shift when the drove the truck to wherever he was going.The whole adventure only took maybe ten minutes.

At the end of it, the guy thanked me profusely, I smiled and said, “You’re welcome. It was actually kinda fun,” and I headed up Folger once more. Spring in my step? Probably.

The idea of altruism is considered to be problematic in evolutionary biology, economics, psychology, and moral philosophy. It obviously exists, yet these disciplines don’t feel that they adequately explain it. It may be noted that each of them also has its own special definition of what “altruism” is, one that excludes a lot of behavior that is normally called altruistic.

Part of this nomenclature problem stems from trying to exclude actions that benefit both others and one’s own self, with the notion of what constitutes “one’s own self” being the real slippery one here. Take my little adventure described above. Let me describe the ways I benefited from it.

There are many things that can ruin a morning, bad traffic, being awakened by a wrong number half an hour before it’s time to get up, seeing a dead dog in the road, or watching a tower of computer monitors come crashing down. That would have been quite unpleasant, even if no one wound up injured, and there was a real possibility of that happening.

Moreover, I got to show off a competency, not only at the time, but in the later telling of the tale.

There is also a very abstract pleasure that comes from making sculpture, and that was what I was doing, taking apart a defective sculpture and replacing it with one that was both aesthetically pleasing (to me, anyway) and utilitarian as well. And the sculpture, taken in the larger sense, was kinetic, deconstruction, reconfiguration, then the later driving and final disassembly. I didn’t get to witness the last part, but I’m pretty sure it turned out all right.

Also, the guy thanked me, which is a form of applause, validation, and better than a dead catfish under the driver’s seat.


Anonymous said...

The idea of altruism is considered to be problematic in evolutionary biology, economics, psychology, and moral philosophy.

Greed is certainly a more reliable impulse, approaching the status of reflex for most of us in most of our activities. Altruistic behavior garners suspicion because we can't identify the motivations, don't see the immediate profit, the angle. Last presidential election a friend convinced himself that Kerry intentionally got wounded in 'Nam to further political aspirations. The friend just could not imagine that an idealistic young man might put himself in harm's way because he actually believed the official narrative.

James Killus said...

I suspect that your friend's levels of rationalization were more complex even than that. He "knew" he didn't like Kerry; after all, Kerry was a spoiled, rich, snooty, what-have-you. Once you know the answer, working out the reasons is easy, and they don't have to be good reasons, either. Knock down one rationalization and there are ten others standing behind it.

Arnaud said...

Interesting coincidence: I came across The Last Psychiatrist for the first time yesterday and s/he had written a post about precisely that mechanism, giving George W Bush as an example instead of Kerry. He calls it "splitting" and goes from there to make some surprising predictions about American society in the years to come. Article is here.

You may not agree with everything he has to say (I certainly don't), James or BDB, but I strongly suspect you'll find it worth a read!

Anonymous said...

Read-worthy indeed! Helpful vocabulary for us civilian psychiatrists.

Yeah, my Kerry-skeptic buddy was rationalizing and I suspect his decision was made years earlier, long before Lt. Bush and Lt. Kerry squared off. The important part of the our exchange that I failed to mention is that my friend seemed genuinely confused when I mentioned altruism. It's not anything our culture spends any time on anymore.

James Killus said...

Thanks, Arnaud, that is one very fine article. I've been sounding the narcissist alarm here (and elsewhere) for quite a while, though I also toss in anti-social, histrionic, and borderline personality disorders pretty frequently. I consider Bush to be a narcissist with strong sado-masochistic and anti-social tendencies, so, hmmm, does this mean that I think he's "bad?"

And I've already made most of the predictions that The Last Psychiatrist speaks of, so there's at least two of us thinking along those lines.

As for altruism in the social sciences, there was a time only a decade or two ago when "group selection" was routinely derided in evolutionary biology. Now it's fairly uncontroversial. I'd like to think that we're getting better at this stuff, but sometimes I think we're locked in a limit cycle.

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