Monday, March 23, 2009

De gustibus non est disputandum

I was checking out the "Barter" section of Craig's List Toronto the other day came across this gem:

Funny Barter...But Serious-Ladies...

Date: 2009-03-13, 9:46PM EDT

I've had this wish forever but have done nothing to realize it! Here is what I'm offering.....
Seeking a young (21 to 40) career woman for whom I can buy NICE Ferragamo, Cole Haan, 9 West Pumps for you to wear. Then at the end of the summer, I just want to give you a new pair of shoes in exchange for the old stinky pair. I am willing to do this over, and over! ;) Please, someone attractive, cute, help me realize this fantasy. ;-)
Yes, it is freaky, but smelly heels happen to be my curse of a fantasy. I am an otherwise normal guy with a 9 to 5 job...just love women's foot. Thanks...eagerly awaiting response. (source)

Thing is, I totally sympathize that this "normal" guy who has a a "curse" of a fantasy. He likes what he likes. Stinky shoes aren't my thing, but hey: De gustibus non est disputandum: "There is no accounting for taste. And like all true fetishes, it's completely out of his control. Hence his evident humility and his language of this being a "curse." Poor guy, I genuinely hope he finds someone willing to take him up on his offer of free shoes. It takes serious courage to put an ad like that on the web.

The ad raises all kinds of interesting questions about the nature of desire in the internet age. These days people with the most obscure interests--say collecting photographs of lawn gnomes or building replicas of Captain Kirk's Chair--can connect with each other via the power of the Internet. It's not just that fixations on the most obscure interests are more acceptable, it's that the attention to such interests are being rewarded. These days, if you are obsessing over building the perfect replica TARDIS you can connect with lots of people with precisely complementary interests. In fact, the more obscure the interest, the more rewarding it must be to connect with others who share it.

Growing up as a kind of nerdy guy, I remember alternating between feeling very alone in my interests and yet also very gratified that I knew more about them than most. For instance, the high school version of myself could have sketched out, in detail, how to make basic explosives (nitroglycerin, ANFO, etc.). I wasn't crazy, just curious and capable of backing up that curiosity with a little library research. Of course, I never tried it--partly because my research also revealed how dangerous this stuff is.* Like a lot of people, I think I felt that my passion for learning about the things that interested me isolated me from the mainstream. Probably most people feel this way about some things in life. If I could talk to myself at age 12 or 13 I could say some very reassuring things about just how valuable that curiosity would be. Most of us only really excel when we align our passions with our occupations.

The sad thing is all the people out there who never have an opportunity to pursue their interests. The Internet has made information (on anything) cheaper to attain, but it's still not free! Even if it were possible to give access to everyone, it might not be advisable. As Paul says, all things may be lawful, but not all things are beneficial. In other words, just because we can share secrets, doesn't mean we should! Some knowledge is dangerous. Really. And I'm not just talking about chemistry.

The worst abuse of this knowledge-as-power idea in the realm of religion comes in the form of what Christians have classically called "Gnosticism." At the root, this is a fetish for "secret" initiations and "knowledge" hidden from casual view. it leads to hierarchies of initiation and the notion that some are more advanced than others simply because they have been given access the "secrets" hidden from others. Think of the religious groups that require people to pay to receive the teachings of the "church." But from the Patristic age the Christian mainstream has believed that the wisdom of Christ is available to all who seek it. In that sense, the christian enterprise has always been allied with those who want to share information, not hide it.

Edward Albee spoke once at my college. In the Q&A time I asked him what he thought of those who propose that unlimited access to information leads to chaos in the Internet age. (I admit, I was baiting him to say something pro-openness as I was advocating for greater openness in the College's Internet policies at the time.) Anyway, he startled me with his direct and clear answer: "I'll take chaos over censorship any day." He said it with a ferocity that I felt in the bottom of my spine. He wasn't kidding.

At the end of the day we are all pursing our diverse and arbitrary interests. I sympathize with anyone brave enough to advertise them on Craigslist!


*Closest I ever came to making explosives was (while supervised by my professor) making gun powder based on sugar for a College chemistry class. I had to balance the Redox reaction and then actually mix the stuff and then burn it. The flash was very satisfying.

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