Religion is a system of morality, but it’s also a system for forgiving lapses in morality. If you mess up, it’s not good, but there are ways of fixing it: say your Hail Marys, make amends, do a mitzvah, go on pilgrimage, and you will be cleansed, your balance restored in the book of life. Laws are absolute but it is expected they will be broken. There is capacity in the system for error; the system is built around the need to accommodate error.
Such capacity seems absent from our public discussions of morality. In trying to make sense of the current horrors, we’re eager to take sides, and make our arguments through moral absolutes: this side has violated this law, and so is entirely in the wrong. But such a system of multiple consistent moral absolutes is inherently unsustainable. Even within a list of 10 Commandments, it’s easy to think of ways they might conflict: if your father orders you to kill someone, if you have to sleep with someone who’s not your husband to avoid stealing food to feed your family.
There are essentially two ways of dealing with this issue. One is to come up with a very small number of moral absolutes, things that matter more than anything else. You could decide, for example, that spreading democracy matters more than anything else, and pursue policies that advance this goal even if they violate other basic moral laws. This seems, to me, inevitable: endorsement of any moral value as absolute necessarily entails an assumption that all other values are not absolutes, and can be violated as long as you are in pursuit of this higher goal. As such, endorsing multiple moral absolutes seems inherently contradictory. You only get one; maybe two.
The other way of dealing with it is the way organized religion mostly does: through a system of forgiveness or cleansing. But such possibility seems beyond the pale within our public discourse around political, economic, and cultural morality. Moral violations here are essentially unforgivable. This makes sense if the whole enterprise is governed by clear moral absolutes (individual freedom, pacifism, market logic, equality, the Constitution, self-determination). But if these moral absolutes are unsustainable or contradictory, then lacking such an out is a clear route to paralysis, irrelevance, or at least incoherence. Religions forgive sins without asking for total self-abnegation, but instead allow some public ritual with a cost less than those of your sins to stand in as a good-enough recompense. It’s not really enough, but we’ll let it be, because there often is no real compensation for the wrongs we do.
We seem to lack a popular vernacular for discussing the morality of systems. This is a problem, because we’re increasingly talking about our systems as actors in and of themselves: the media, popular culture, industries, the market. (This is in addition to long-recognized institutions like the state, religions, and so forth.) The media do something; culture doesn’t do something. Corporations are legal people. States commit atrocities. They do. They commit a thousand smaller sins too. The problem is that this is inevitable. Systems are qualitatively different from individuals. Individuals can, theoretically, go about their daily lives without harming anyone. Systems cannot. Because systems suck up so many resources, and because they have responsibilities to so many people with necessarily conflicting interests, any action they take will inevitably harm someone, somewhere. There is no getting around this, no moral absolute we could enforce that would prevent it. So how do we deal with it?
In the past, we’ve been reluctant to assign morality to systems, because this seems to absolve individuals within the system of responsibility for their actions; if it’s the fault of “culture” or “the media” or “the market,” then somehow no one goes to jail after a monstrous wrong. This is understandable. Students in business or public policy programs are often wildly unhappy about having to take ethics courses, because what they would learn there conflicts with their overriding goal of being successful in their careers. An ethical decision, after all, will sometimes be one that conflicts with self-interest. (This is why we have ethics, and not just self-interest.) This is a problem, and it certainly serves us well as a society to have individuals within these systems thinking carefully about the impact of their actions.
But those of us outside these systems—what constitutes “the public” in any given situation—have no knowledge about the intentions, situations, or even actions of individuals within that system. We often do not know why a given action was taken; we only know that the action was taken, and we know the results of that action. How, then, do we judge these actions without resorting to the language of moral absolutes? It seems we need a morality of systems, a discourse that would allow us to make nuanced assessments about the actions of aggregated or collective enterprises. We have been nothing if not successful in identifying these systems’ sins. But how do we allow these systems to repent?
FKA Twigs - “Two Weeks” (2014)
The “FKA” in FKA Twigs’ name stands for “Formerly Known As,” a legal term of art often found in entertainment industry contracts; she took it on when she was still known as “Twigs” to fend off a legal challenge from another artist also known as Twigs. She became the term that would be used in the legal settlement, recognizing that her identity is constituted through a system of laws rather than her pure intentionality. The name of her forthcoming debut album is LP1, and this, too, is a legal term of art: in music industry contracts, “LP1” is used to refer to the first album made under the contract (and LP2 the second, etc.) since the titles of these future albums are not known yet.
As a former entertainment law paralegal, I find this charming, but it also resonates with her music. “Two Weeks” is an intensely physical song, not dancing around the point but coming right to it: “Feel your body closing, I can rip it open,” she sings. That sort of very specific language about sex is in sharp contrast to the dry abstractions of “FKA” and “LP1.” Legalese takes the horrors of human experience (death, violence, divorce) and expresses them in terms as entirely removed from emotion as possible: plaintiffs, executors, guardianship. The court deliberates on whether a man will be poisoned by the state for stabbing three people to death: is he guilty of first-degree murder.
Pop does this too. Pop songs are about (or are taken to be about) these intensely personal aspects of human experience, both physical and emotional—desire, attraction, sex, love, loss—things we experience only in the specific. But these songs, and our relationships with them, are embedded in a system that’s necessarily impersonal, that cannot afford to do anything but generalize the individual experience of listening to this work of art to as many people as possible. The song that means the world to you was deliberately engineered to be as appealing as possible, even if that meant subsuming the artist’s vision, was mass-produced and distributed and marketed without any regard for your feelings. The song my father-in-law chose for his dance with my wife at our wedding was used as Edward and Bella’s first dance at their wedding in Twilight. That doesn’t make our use of it any less emotional, but it’s a distinction that’s less jarring when it’s recognized and granted. Placing your identity as a singer within a legal term while singing “pull out the insides and give me two weeks” drives this home.
Here is a list of good songs from 2014. It’s the same stuff everyone else likes, but just songs, and a list, and by me. I put “Problem” and “Talk Dirty” back-to-back so you can have 6 full minutes of uninterrupted SAX JAMS.
Here’s a piece that does a pretty good job responding to the criticism of that Facebook study. The argument is as follows: Facebook already manipulates what you see in your news feed; Facebook users are well aware of that; therefore, manipulating users’ Facebook feeds in this new way (to display less positive or negative content) isn’t an ethical violation.
The thing I don’t get here, though, is that, if Facebook already alters users’ Facebook feeds, why didn’t the researchers use this existing manipulations as a kind of “natural experiment”? After all, surely the existing Facebook algorithm already produces news feeds that have different emotional valences, and a researcher that had access to the full set of Facebook data could use those instances to test a hypothesis. It wouldn’t have been too hard: just find two people that share, say, 95% of the same friends, look for instances when those two people saw different posts in their news feed, assess the emotional valence of each news feed, and look for differences in the posts they then produce. Sure, that’s a slightly different design (paired-subjects v. pretest/posttest) but it would have entirely gotten around the ethical issues. Why not use this far more unobtrusive method?
Robyn & Royksöpp @ Marymoor Park, Redmond, WA, 6/26/14
Is Robyn consciously pulling a “Soon as they like you make ‘em unlike you” move with the influx of new American fans bestowed upon her by Girls? At the very least, her set last night focused on a particular range of sounds that would have been just at home on her 1997 debut Robyn is Here as they are on her current collaboration with Royksöpp: dark, throbbing electro and post-rave bang-ups. In practice, though, that meant leading with her more obscure tracks, like “Stars 4-Ever” and ending the night with “None of Dem,” her previous collaboration with Royksöpp—not surprising, given the collaborative nature of the concert, but not exactly a high note to go out on. Even some initial nods to more well-known tracks seemed like provocations, like starting her set off with “Be Mine!” (still maybe her best song) to a decidedly muted crowd response. (Did people go back and listen to Robyn after getting Body Talk?) While the songs from the EP with Royksöpp were done well, with an appropriately overwhelming light show, and she eventually brought out the biggest of the guns (“Dancing,” “Call,” “Heartbeat”), the night seemed low-energy for an artist that left a capacity crowd breathless when I saw her four years back. Maybe it was the venue: Marymoor Park, an outdoor space in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, was a fantastic place to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs last summer, but happening less than a week after solstice and with a curfew of 10 pm, the majority of Robyn’s show took place with the sun still up, a nearly fatal blow for a dance show. Nevertheless, it was hard not to detect some provocation in her choice to avoid her more crowd-pleasing album cuts, and to perform “Call Your Girlfriend” as a remix that ditched the rousing sixteenth-note pulse for an eighth-note stomp. (Plus a bunch of new tracks.) Robyn clearly wanted the mainstream success she’s managed to achieve here (no one solicits a Snoop guest verse for artistic purposes), but now it seems like she’s pursuing the dance-pop artist’s version of going back to her roots. Does she mean to test her audience? Regardless, that seemed to be the effect last night.
Photo by Jennifer Mortensen/@ttuesdayy