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Reflections on Midlife: A Philosophical Guide by Kieran Setiya

DanielMiller2 February 2018

Our team is certainly blessed, in that just as we set out on our study of midlife, a joyous and profound book is published on exactly this subject: Reflections on Midlife: A philosophical Guide by the philosopher Kieran Setiya. I can’t imagine a better treatment by a philosopher of topics ranging from whether there is a mid-life crisis, how to be reconciled to the lives we haven’t and won’t live, the fear of death, or the issues of regret, missing out and retrospection. It’s a clear read and acts a collection point for some of the `best bits’ on this topic from sources ranging from Aristotle, through Schopenhauer to Simone de Beauvoir. It is also a kind of practice guide for the actually middle-aged (such as myself) on how to live in the present, how to value activities in their own right and not just as projects, and why the path to happiness is always through others. As it happens there were also substantial sections whose aspirations I do not share, such as his concluding sections on Buddhism and mindfulness, which to me still speaks to an orientation to the self and the body. I would prefer to watch paint dry than to contemplate my own breathing, and generally I prefer a more social and ethical orientation to resolving these dilemmas.

Creative Commons Gregg Vaughn

This book takes nothing away from our task as anthropologists. Setiya’s volume is an exercise in thinking about how other people might think about midlife, and much of it is about contemplation. But as I note in my own recent book The Comfort of People, the hospice patients I worked with don’t do much of this contemplation about the meaning and purpose of life. They valorise the life they have actually lived through continuities of practice, such as watching TV and keeping up with family relationships. We have a perhaps harder task in extrapolating our insights on how people relate to midlife from our interrogation and interpretation of such embedded practices within everyday life. And in our case, we will do this comparatively, considering the difference in such practices around the world. Anthropology is not a handmaiden to philosophy – it is trying to achieve rather different goals, but I feel equally important ones. Still I suspect there are going to be quite a few of my informants to whom I might end up recommending Setiya’s book, simply for the good I think it can do in understanding one’s life and in the pleasure of just reading a well crafted book.

What an app reveals about the brutality of life in rural China – by Xu Zhiwei

ShireenWalton25 January 2018

Recently, the smartphone app Kuaishou emerged from China’s cutthroat online entertainment market with more than 400 million registered users and an estimated worth of some two billion USD. It is now the fourth largest social media platform in the country, after WeChat (an instant messaging, and e-commerce and payment app), QQ (instant messaging), and the Sina Weibo micro-blogging site. The majority of the content on Kuaishou is made up of self-harm videos with “comic” twists, rather like the American TV show “Jackass.” Viewers can watch daredevils do everything from swallowing lightbulbs to lighting firecrackers under their own backsides. Those taking part are almost all from smaller, third-tier cities or rural-urban fringe zones. They seek internet stardom by harming their bodies in unconventional ways.

Middle-aged woman eating lightbulbs and worms

In China’s cosmopolitan cities, Internet celebrities are able to rake in tens of thousands of yuan every month by live-streaming themselves eating or shopping. Kuaishou users emulate their urban counterparts, hoping to making a fortune by becoming famous. However, for these people, without wider networks or resources, the results are generally disappointing, and mostly they remain mired in poverty.

For rural China, kuaishou culture expresses, in a particularly eye-catching manner, both this population’s desire for achieving a better life, and more importantly, the cultural difficulties of being poor in contemporary China. Through these practices of bodily harm and self-insults, these people reveal, among other issues, just how unacceptable they find the condition of poverty.

– Xu Zhiwei

Chilean Elections and Peruvian Migrants: Between Uncertainty and Pride – By Alfonso Otaegui

AlfonsoOtaegui16 December 2017

Chile is currently in the process of electing a President. The first round was inconclusive, and the second will take place tomorrow, December 17th. The two candidates are the former President Sebastian Piñera and the newcomer to politics Alejandro Guillier, who belongs to a coalition that includes the party of current President Michelle Bachelet.

This election is not irrelevant to the migrant population in Chile, who I will be studying, the Peruvian one in particular. They are the largest migrant population with over 100.000 people, roughly one third of all migrants. They are also highly visible being present in the main urban space. My fieldsite is going to be Pequeña Lima (Little Lima), as it came to be known in the last years, which is a very lively area in Santiago, full of Peruvian restaurants, Peruvian product shops with colorful advertisings and Peruvian people hanging around. As also happens in other countries in South America, migrants are usually the recipients of negative stereotypes, the most common being the accusation that they are stealing jobs from the local population. The two presidential candidates, erring on the side of caution, have only made broad statements about migration policies.

The uncertainties and concerns of Peruvian migrants in Chile can be seen in their local newspaper Contigo Perú (Peru is with you). Even though last editorial does not show any obvious support to any particular candidate, it calls for a responsible attitude: “we represent in concrete terms what it means to be a migrant. […] we must then turn ourselves into referents of what it means to be a good migrant”. The electorate expects visible changes to follow from such elections. The status of the migrant is at stake and this newspaper presents a proud Peruvian community that is up to the challenge. This will be the context for my work among migrants in Santiago de Chile.

Let’s see what happens in the next two years.

– Alfonso Otaegui

Second Life

DanielMiller11 July 2017

We had intended to only start blogging in October when our project actually starts. But the inclusion of a special section in this week’s The Economist (8/7/2017) on the `young old’ is too great a temptation to resist. There are three main components to our forthcoming project. The ethnography of the smartphone and the development of mHealth are two foci. But our foundation is in re-thinking the experience of age for those who can no longer be designated at either young or elderly, i.e. those between the ages of 45 and 70. For me, an interest in how older populations appropriate technology had grown partly from previous projects. When Facebook started to become ubiquitous I was arguing that in the long-term I could see this as more of an older person’s than a younger person’s innovation. My logic was that this was in essence a platform for social communication, and in most societies studied by anthropologists the traditional ‘burden’ of active social communication had been that of older women rather than younger men, especially when it came to keeping up with what is happening in families. Our Why We Post project has shown how in many regions of the world, this kind of intra-family communication is the core to Facebook usage. When I first suggested this alignment, people thought I was insane since Facebook was assumed to exist only for teenagers. But in The Economist the same point is now being taken seriously.

The Economist is mainly concerned with the economic implications of longevity, but for our project there is a real intellectual challenge in researching how living longer than previous generations changes peoples’ understanding of themselves, but also ultimately of the meaning and purpose of their lives. We want to get involved in the practical implications, as in the rise of mHealth, but first we want to compare the experience and meaning of ageing for this demographic across our 12 fieldsites.

The Economist also has a leader asking for a new category or label for this age group. Their own proposal of ‘pre-tired’ is fun, but is probably not intended to ‘stick,’ to the degree that a category such as ‘teenagers’ has. In a preliminary discussion with the team I had proposed the term ‘Second Life’. I know this was the name of a popular computer game but that seems to have faded somewhat and I think it is possible to re-use the term. The reason for this choice is that it seems clear that many people in their fifties and sixties actually want to stay in work, but not necessarily in the work they have done so far. Many would like to return to education, but to study something different. Those who were working when they were parents and were therefore unable to spend as much time with their children as they had wanted to are more likely to want to be active grandparents. Whereas perhaps those who were full-time parents are less likely to be as involved in grand-parenting. In other words, people realise in their fifties that they may have done thirty years of work, but then may have another thirty active years to do something else. So the idea of Second Life, suggests that people now have the opportunity to, as it were, start again, based on the experience and the mistakes of life so far.