Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I was struck by a comment in Kalefa Sanneh’s fascinating review of several new books on the economics of the entertainment industry. Discussing Anita Elberse’s book Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, and the argument that the obsession with finding isolated major hits rather than the profits to be made in the “Long Tail”,  Sanneh writes

In the seventies and eighties the hit men worried mainly about each other, but the rise of digital delivery means that their modern-day successors must also contend with a more existential threat… Betting on blockbusters might be a defensive strategy: a way for established entertainment companies to stall the larger forces eroding their “channel power”, at least for a while. Unlike the old hit men, Elberse’s executives can’t assume that their industries will be around forever.

This got me to marvelling, once again, at how short a time forever is, in human experience. (This was a major theme of one of my small excursuses into academic literary criticism, the essay Kafka’s Geometry.) The “old hit men” are only 30 years or so in the past. I suppose “around forever” could mean here “around until the end of their careers”, and this would just about be right. But it seems logically inevitable that if workers toiling in the modern entertainment industry have reason to doubt that it will be around forever, then those of 30 years ago were simply deluded to think that their industry’s future was assured. It’s the same future. It makes as much sense as it would to explain ones teenage behaviour by saying, “Back then I was going to live forever.” You might say this, but only as a joke, or as an expression of amazement at your earlier delusion. (Speaking for myself, I was never immortal, and I doubt that anyone was. It looks to me as though teenagers may not care about the consequences of their actions, for reasons good and bad, and they may have difficulty inhibiting their impulses if they do care, but the research I am aware of does not suggest that they actually feel invulnerable.)

This reminded me of the comments that I remember hearing (and that I described in this essay) in the early 90s, from former citizens of the German Democratic Republic: You knew you were taken care of. You had security. You didn’t have to worry about the future.

In retrospect, given that no one who was in their cradle in the GDR made it even to middle age in that country, the promise of security was obviously delusive. But it felt like security, and that’s a rare gift, not to be scoffed at, given that this world (to quote Matthew Arnold)

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

Or perhaps we should see the socialist accomplishment as being analogous to that of the charming hostess described by Virginia Woolf:

The truth would seem to be–if we dare use such a word in such a connection–that all these groups of people lie under an enchantment. The hostess is our modern Sibyl. She is a witch who lays her guests under a spell. In this house they think themselves happy; in that witty; in a third profound. It is all an illusion (which is nothing against it, for illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things, and she who can create one is among the world’s greatest benefactors), but as it is notorious that illusions are shattered by conflict with reality, so no real happiness, no real wit, no real profundity are tolerated where the illusion prevails.

Perhaps that is the true explanation for the unrelieved greyness of real existing socialism, and why many who experienced it mourned its passing, even while they appreciated the attractions and new possibilities of life in “the West”. It was all an illusion, but an illusion that people could inhabit for 40 years is an astonishing accomplishment.

In this context, I should mention a fascinating recent blog post by political scientist Corey Robin, about how the libertarian utopia seems to require that all human beings spend most of their waking hours managing various accounts and planning for the future, rather than just, you know, living. And that the promise of the welfare state is just to reduce the cognitive burden that crushes people’s lives.

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