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2D or not to be.

On Using Etiquette to Promote Culture and Culture to Promote Reality


EVEN AS JEREMIADS for the humanities continue to ring out everywhere, a new study suggests that scientists, those occasionally useful but frustratingly slow and plodding practitioners of the empirical approach to the universe, may finally be coming around to a possibility humanists have recognized and embraced for ages: the universe is a mere hologram, with all its multiple dimensions just a projection of a two-dimensional reality.1 Another way of arriving at something like the same conclusion — here I am following the lead of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum — is to realize that because, in the future, we will almost certainly be able to design a plethora of full-scale holographic simulations of universes in which intelligent life just like us can evolve and think thoughts just like these, we face a choice between believing that we are special and simply happen to be in one of the real, i.e., non-holographic, universes or conceding that we are far more statistically likely to be living in one of the very many holographic universes that have already been designed by intelligent beings like ourselves for whom what is, for us, a future contingency has already come to pass. Since the latter possibility is vastly more probable, it is only rational for us to acknowledge that our seemingly 4D lives are, on some level, illusory. (The “intelligent design” crowd may well be right after all, but not at all in the way they imagine.) Based on both these scenarios that render us less real than we think we are, i.e., the one physicists have recently arrived at or the one based on philosophical speculation, it is as though the big container in which we think we live is, in some Ding-an-sich, God’s-eye-view “reality” (whatever that might mean), reducible to something akin to a set of instructions specifying the precise contours of our four-dimensional (or ten-dimensional) space-time or — where else have we seen a clear instance of a 2D reality creating a vivid illusion of 4D worlds? — a film, a book or a poem. Or, to put this in terms to which a humanist might more readily relate, “there are no facts, only art,” which makes poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Now (this part is for those slow scientists, financial types and innumerable other unfortunates who likely haven’t yet taken the full measure of the point), even if such accounts of the nature of the universe were not ultimately borne out, it would remain no less true that without the two-dimensional methods we employ to confer meaning and value upon things-in-themselves, all the additional dimensions in the universe might as well be a big black void, with all the atoms that ostensibly fill it purely illusory. As Levi-Strauss argued, the difference between human beings and animals is that we must process our raw surroundings symbolically in order to metabolize them. Our ideas, associations, tropes and categories necessarily mediate between us and our multifarious environs.

Thus, regardless of what our future physicists and philosophers may tell us in the final analysis, there is a very significant sense in which our reality, the one we actually experience, consists of values, not facts. And so, if we are determined to go beyond the province of inert facts, to recognize what matters and why, what doesn’t and what doesn’t but should, to grasp reality revealed in living color rather than contenting ourselves with bare traces of its ghostly outline, it is the humanities that hold the key. The hard sciences may arm us with the raw ingredients, but only the humanities can bake the cake. Only the humanities can overlay upon the brute stuff in our midst a golden aura, a veneer of enchantment that allows us, when we sense and contemplate, to take stock and feel rapture.

To understand and appreciate nature, we must study culture, and the higher the culture to which we devote ourselves, the deeper we will be able to delve.

SO, TO UNDERSTAND and appreciate nature, we must study culture, and the higher the culture to which we devote ourselves, the deeper we will be able to delve. Pop culture scratches the surface. It kicks up topsoil and lets it settle back down a few inches removed from whence it came. It shuffles the pieces without solving the puzzle or even painting much of a new picture. It reveals nothing. It fulfills our expectations and reinforces our prejudices. It constructs a vast echo chamber, feeding back to us, packaged in heavily amplified saccharine soundbytes, that which we already know.

Middlebrow culture burrows a bit further but ultimately retreats from the blinding light and scorching heat of the core radiating from below and tethers itself to those perches and ledges where we’ll feel safe and secure. It takes us on group tours of exotic places, with the chatty guide always offering his helpful explanations of the natives’ quaint ways, with the stops we make comprising part of a well-ordered itinerary, complete with pauses for photos during excursions along well-worn trails, with the tourist-friendly restaurants (which give kickbacks to the Company, of course) serving us sanitized versions of the local fare and with our ultimate ending point — a safe return — preordained and never in doubt. We come home satisfied and satiated, grateful for the experience, having learned some helpful half-truths about the marvelous diversity of our wonderful world; but we are not transformed.

High culture, however, does do exactly that: it transforms us. It drives down all the way to the core, not stopping until we are uncomfortable, overwhelmed and overcome, beyond the reach of all convention, until, melted down in this furnace of truth, we emerge re-forged into something entirely new, while, with our eyes only just beginning to adjust to the darkness of the lower depths, we are suddenly blinded, as by a burst of starlight, and we find our ordinary perception disabled so that we are forced to develop other, better, truer senses attuned to the strange beauty and mind-bending magnitudes of the real.

Let us not be so naïve as to imagine that high culture is, has ever been or — absent significant technological or nootropic upgrades in our cognitive capacities — can one day be the province of the Everyman. Our world is, expanding the Platonic metaphor, a series of nested caves, and each person can get out only so far, with every level nearer the direct light of the sun requiring more and more exceptional levels of ability and effort. Or, to put this more concretely, those who create great works of creative genius tend, unsurprisingly, to be great, creative geniuses, so that to appreciate their works requires at least some semblance of those same traits, which are in short supply. But even if we might never reach a point where Average Joe is reading and relishing Ulysses, there remains a critical distinction to be made between a society where Ulysses, its author and its readers are held in high esteem and one where they are ridiculed and denigrated. Going to attend philosophy lectures as a superficial measure just to make a show of one’s refinement the way some people did in Ancient Rome is still a whole lot better than thinking philosophy is dumb and useless. Those lectures might pique interest, after all; one might learn something. More importantly, the difference between these two kinds of societies may be the difference between interest in and funding for the arts and the lack thereof, between people who, hearing friends or colleagues discussing some cultural artifact, decide to see for themselves what all the hoopla’s about and people who never hear such things spoken of in their midst, between parents who encourage their kids to scale cultural heights they themselves never managed to attain and those parents who don’t see any point in such pursuits and push their kids, instead, solely to do whatever it takes to rake in more cash than the promising progeny of their next-door neighbors.

UNFORTUNATELY, CULTURE — ESPECIALLY high culture — is not exactly in vogue at the moment. Remember, the humanities are, as we’ve already observed, in crisis. There are three general categories of reasons why. First, there is what I’d call the economic component of the issue. In tough economic times, our myopic focus on economic achievement surely becomes exaggerated still further. The cultivation of culture and our higher selfhood require, for most folks, the luxury of leisure, which may explain why periods of cultural flourishing have so often coincided with historical epochs of economic prosperity (e.g., Periclean Athens, China under the Han Dynasty, the early Roman Empire, Islamic civilization under the Abbasid and Fatimid Caliphates, Renaissance Italy, sixteenth-seveteenth-century Spain, the seventeeth century in the Netherlands, eighteenth-nineteenth-century England, the late-nineteenth-mid-twentieth-century U.S.A.), though I would argue that the relationship between economic and cultural prosperity is not one-directional and that, rather, although a solid economic foundation may constitute a necessary edifice for culture to get going, once culture takes hold, economic and cultural achievement may spur on one another, as the vibrant creativity and innovation characteristic of a culturally fertile environment then feed back to foment further waves of advancement in the economic sphere. But in eras of economic stagnation, people tend to concern themselves first and foremost with questions of survival, matters of life and death, while the pursuit of the good life or the best possible life gets put on the back burner. If we are incurring years of debt with no guaranty of future employment when we go to college, no one should be surprised when we increasingly start conceiving of our college education not as a four-year entrée into a wildly beguiling world of ideas, but rather, as a practical investment in a hoped-for future as wolves of Wall Street.2 In such an environment, the humanities start to look like extravagant luxuries we can no longer afford.

The second category of reasons for the humanities’ recent struggles emanates from within the humanities themselves. This constellation of issues has received much attention from cultural conservatives and others at least ever since Allan Bloom’s publication of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), so I need not stop long to dwell upon them here, but in summary, the idea is that when we in the West stopped genuflecting at the altar of our greatest cultural achievements and started acting sheepish about them, while canonizing, in their place, all kinds of second-rate productions because they ostensibly better represented the viewpoints and experiences of members of various non-Western cultures and sundry protected categories, we turned ourselves into an international laughingstock and lost the confidence of much of the educated public outside the anointed ranks of the literati, which educated public then dragged the masses along with it. If there’s such a thing as dead, white, male, heterosexual literature most relevant to the experience of dead, white male heterosexuals (who, by definition, aren’t around anymore anyway), and such a thing as transgendered Hispanic literature or “subaltern” literature with an equal claim to legitimacy and far more relevance as far as experience of transgendered Hispanics or subalterns goes, then — it stands to reason — there’s also such a thing as popular, mass-market literature that is equally legitimate and most relevant to the experience of the masses and, for that matter, video games, which are most relevant to the experience of those increasingly many who are literate only in the sense that they can make out the letters and put them together into the relatively small set of words and “words” necessary to divine the meaning of product labels, office memos, texts and tweets.

Such developments were undergirded within the academy by critical approaches best described by the umbrella term, “the hermeneutics of suspicion” (or what Harold Bloom has more colorfully termed the “schools of resentment”). Informed by the intellectual descendants of Marx (conceiving of aesthetic creations as emanations of class interests), Freud (conceiving of aesthetic creations as emanations of the creator’s unconscious) and Nietzsche (conceiving of aesthetic creations as emanations of the will to power), these approaches displaced those which had imagined that works of art were well-wrought urns in which one, with arduous labor and close reading, can discern deep patterns and meanings carefully placed by talented creators. Instead, such works were now to be questioned, situated, undermined, deconstructed and exposed. As vulgarized versions of these methodologies have, little by little, filtered out to the mainstream, they have fostered the perception that humanities professionals are a bunch of out-of-touch tenured radicals; more importantly, they have knocked our urns off their pedestals, thrown the broken pieces to the wind and led to a widespread questioning of aesthetic merit and a concomitant devaluation of aesthetic experience itself.

Our minds have been reformatted for faster, shallower, punchier fodder. Reading War and Peace today is somewhat akin to buying a set of encyclopedias.

The third category of causes of the humanities’ downfall is, perhaps, most far-reaching and irreversible. I have written about this issue at some length3, so, again, a summary will suffice for the present purposes. In brief, technological changes favoring ephemeral, high-stimulation, rapid-fire, multimedia entertainments coupled with the de-professionalization of all gatekeeping functions such as publishing made possible by the internet’s arming of the average citizen with a personal printing press has rendered the traditional humanities requiring concentration and deep immersion to appreciate obsolete and inaccessible to the Many. Our minds have been reformatted for faster, shallower, punchier fodder. Reading War and Peace today is somewhat akin to buying a set of encyclopedias.

So, if high culture holds the ultimate key to the hope for an enchanted reality but high culture is dying, what are we to do? I liken the problem to trying to address a spate of violent crime in a large, complex urban environment. There are, broadly speaking, three approaches one may take. The first is the direct approach: go after violent crime. Impose stiffer penalties, with the aim of deterring future offenders while making it difficult or impossible for those who already committed such crimes to get back out on the streets. This approach, however, is rather merciless and of dubious empirical value, since the evidence that stiff penalties lead to deterrence of those who haven’t yet committed such crimes is debatable at best. The second approach is to take the view that crime is an outcome of certain basic social structures that are leading individuals to make poor life choices. The solution, then, might entail ambitious measures such as fundamentally reforming our system of education, curbing pervasive income inequality, expanding our network of social services and outreach to “at risk” individuals and communities, re-thinking and reforming our commercial culture of vulgar, mind-numbing entertainments, etc. This approach, of course, is, in reality, the gold-standard, but it is expensive, difficult and politically unmanageable.

The other approach is the kind of by-now-familiar quality-of-life policing that has succeeded so dramatically in New York City and other urban areas. On the premise that those who commit these big crimes are the same people who commit small quality-of-life crimes and infractions, the idea is to go after these small crimes and, as a result, prevent the big ones. If we can clean up the streets and get rid of the squeegee men, panhandlers, pimps, con men and drug pushers, we can create an environment where (i) these small offenders are no longer out on the streets where they can cause potentially bigger problems; and (ii) residents of formerly unsafe neighborhoods now have a lower tolerance for these kinds of petty offenses, start policing themselves and take an affirmative role in making their own streets safer. This third approach, I would argue, is the most efficient and feasible of the three. The interesting thing about this approach is that we do not have to impose absurdly harsh penalties of dubious empirical value upon individuals as we do with approach  number 1, nor do we have to summon the political will to engineer big structural reforms as we do with approach number 2. Instead, we create deep, meaningful change in an environment by making seemingly small-scale, superficial alterations in certain pernicious external hallmarks we see in that environment.

ANOTHER WAY OF thinking of this kind of approach is by conceptualizing it in terms of what psychologists sometimes refer to as a “keystone habit.” As described in Charles Duhigg’s intriguing The Power of Habit (2012), when former U.S. treasury secretary Paul O’Neill was at his previous job in the private sector as CEO of the aluminum company Alcoa, he engineered a massive turnaround in that company’s fortunes simply by focusing obsessively on worker safety. He saw that the rate of workplace accidents was way too high, so he set as a goal a drastic reduction in the number of such accidents. The results were not only an improvement in accident rates, but an enormous consequent increase in overall productivity and morale, as preventing accidents forced the company to overhaul and dramatically improve its system of internal communication, which led to such measures as the first-ever company intranet being created. Such improved communication then led to an overall increase in efficiency. Safety, as it turned out, was a “keystone habit” that led to a cascading series of reforms. Thus, just as in the quality-of-life policing scenario, a seemingly small change in an environment results in a far-reaching, thoroughgoing change.

Turning now to the culture crisis, there are likewise three strategies we might try. The first, as with violent crime, is the direct approach: increase funding for the arts, including propaganda (or, if you prefer, advertising) in support of the arts, and institute more stringent and demanding national humanities curricula throughout our schools and universities. This is, in both respects, expensive, however. The second strategy, again tracking the crime paradigm, would be to take the view that lack of interest in culture is a result of deep-seated economic and social issues, phenomena such as growing inequality, rampant materialism, skyrocketing costs of education tuition and repressive de-sublimation brought about in part by technological change. So, there: we’ve identified the problem; now go fix it. Good luck with that.

Okay … but what’s the third category, the one that’s both effective and feasible? I want to make an argument that, at first blush, might seem unintuitive but which, in my view, might yield significant, if unexpected, benefits. As I’ve already suggested, in order for culture to thrive and spread rather than more-or-less-rapidly dying away except among an ever-tinier elite, it’s crucial that the uncultured masses see at least some aspects of culture as worthy pursuits that they unfortunately haven’t (yet) acquired, much the same way illiterate people might view the ability to read or high school dropouts might view getting a diploma. In order to achieve this, we might start by getting people to participate in and take pride from their participation in some superficial, simple, external hallmarks of culture.

etiqsmTake, for example (this is more than just an example), etiquette. Etiquette is, in essence, a collection of norms concerning how to interact properly, appropriately and politely with others, principally but not exclusively in public. It concerns matters such as how to greet, meet and eat, when to engage and when to keep one’s distance, how to speak, listen and converse, how to conduct oneself as a host and as a guest, how to dress and groom oneself and other matters of this sort. These rules and norms are generally grounded in vague notions of mutual respect and public virtue, but they are certainly not objective and differ markedly from society to society, which doesn’t make the observance of some intra-societal consensus as to matters of etiquette any less critical. It is noteworthy, in this respect, that, as anyone with any sensitivity to such issues will recognize, our society has, in recent decades, grown increasingly, frustratingly oblivious to norms of this sort. Etiquette is on the wane. People’s public behavior is more and more openly uncouth, uncivil and disrespectful. This is a point I have no wish to belabor here, as I have addressed it at length in an earlier essay4, which I ended with a proposed code of public conduct that I suggested be taught in schools and posted on the walls in public places.

I WOULD ADD one more prescription to the mix: the revival and universal teaching of the art of rhetoric to the point where it attains something akin to the kind of status it enjoyed in Ancient Rome. While it is not part of a code of conduct, rhetoric is closely related in that, in contrast to the likewise valuable art of written composition, rhetoric concerns how we present ourselves and engage others in public and, hence, encourages us to pay attention to our speech and body language and the way our words affect others. As with etiquette, I think we can all agree public speaking is in dire need of improvement, and for that reason, as well as its obvious practical benefits, I believe this would be a feasible measure people could easily get behind.

The question, of course, is what the widespread observance and social enforcement of a code of public conduct and the teaching of rhetoric will accomplish as far as culture is concerned. To explain this, I need to make reference to a disagreement between Plato and Aristotle on the question of virtue. For Plato, virtue was equivalent to knowledge of the Good. If one truly had such knowledge, one would behave in accordance with it, and if one is not behaving thusly, it is simply because of a failure to understand, whether generally or at that particular moment, which action was virtuous. If one “knows” marital infidelity is not virtuous but, in a moment of weakness, goes ahead with it anyway, this is because the knowledge has failed to register, as if one, during this window of time, has lost sight of the bigger picture. This account is certainly not crazy, but it’s also not the way we normally think of our various moral failings. We may know full well, at the exact moment we are gobbling down a Twinkie, that we really shouldn’t be doing this, but our cravings may be too strong for our rational cognitions to overcome. Aristotle’s conception of virtue is, for this reason, more familiar to us. He stressed the importance of cultivating good habits, which we customarily learn from our elders who, in turn, derive their notions of which habits are good and which ones bad from the explicit and implicit education they are given by the State. (For this reason, it is extremely difficult, in his view, to become a virtuous person when one is reared in an unjust regime.) The reason good habits are so important is that when one exercises such habits, over time, one, in Aristotle’s view, not only comes to take pleasure from their exercise but also gains an intellectual appreciation for them as well; one comes to understand, through practice, why one’s actions are virtuous. One internalizes these norms of conduct. Our psychologists might conceive of this process under the rubric of cognitive dissonance, but either way, Aristotle’s idea is, as an empirical matter, sound.

The magic of adopting good habits of etiquette and public speaking is that it is not long before people who begin practicing such habits start erecting elaborate cognitive constructs both rationalizing and building upon them, and these constructs are precisely the kind of fertile bedrock in which culture can take root.

The magic of adopting good habits of etiquette and public speaking, in other words, is that it is not long before people who begin practicing such habits start erecting elaborate cognitive constructs both rationalizing and building upon them, and these constructs are, as I explain in more detail below, precisely the kind of fertile bedrock in which culture can take root. Moreover, people who adopt such habits soon start thinking of themselves as the kinds of people who do not litter on the streets or curse in public, the kinds of people who treat others with politeness, deference, gallantry, respect and consideration as long as those others conduct themselves accordingly, the kinds of people who attend to the details of how they dress and present themselves, of how they communicate with others, making, in the process, judgments about gaucheries and proprieties, barbarism and civility, crudity and refinement. They become proud of who they are as a culture and a people, even to the point of over-identifying with the way they do things, coming to believe that their way is superior to others. While we in the West have, of late, done everything in our power to demonize the we-are-superior approach to the world and demonized ourselves in the process, and while some of this kind of questioning undoubtedly has a salutary effect in combating certain discriminatory practices and pernicious prejudices, I firmly believe that, though inculcating blind obedience to one’s own clan is going a bit too far, there is a significant degree to which taking pride in one’s society and customs is necessary for individuals to feel enchantment, to go about their lives with the requisite sense of steady purposefulness. We do not have to go all the way to embracing the proto-Nazi nationalism of Hans Freyer or Carl Schmitt to believe that, in such an environment, a milieu where the people feel a strong sense of national purpose and pride, of collective destiny, as history has shown again and again, culture can thrive.

While the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, viz., that individual human languages track the relevant linguistic group’s culture has not received much empirical support, the inverse position — that our mindsets are subtly shaped by the way we speak — has.5 Indeed, it has been demonstrated that our outward behavior, such as the language we use, gradually comes to influence our mindset, our outlook upon the world.6 This should not surprise us: it is intuitive enough that if, for instance, we go around cursing left and right indiscriminately, we will eventually accustom ourselves to regarding many of the things and people around contemptuously, dismissively and negatively just as surely as going around picking fights is likely to amplify our hostility at the world.

In much the same way, the attitude of deference and reverence that etiquette breeds confers respect for education and cultivation, while greater sensitivity to the way we and others around us speak encourages an appreciation for the nuances of language. Art and culture go hand in hand with these newfound airs of refinement. Counting ourselves within the ranks of the refined and distinguishing ourselves from the untutored hordes prime us to approach culture receptively. Acting respectfully toward our elders and our traditional customs will instill in us that same posture of respect toward our collective past and cultural traditions. Moreover, the attitude of deference to our more refined and educated “betters” that etiquette brings along with it will persuade us to imitate them and aspire toward their more sophisticated tastes. We may not rush to embrace “difficult” culture and certainly not the kind of outré culture that sets out to disgust or outrage bourgeois sensibilities, but such culture always has and will continue to subsist on the margins. The point, rather, is that encouraging conformity with seemingly superficial norms of etiquette will, little by little, engineer an environment hospitable to culture as a whole, even as it will counsel us to reject the most vulgar elements of our popular culture, i.e., Real Housewives, Miley Cyrus, Kanye West and that sort of thing, as violative of our now-internalized standards of appropriate public speech and behavior.

THESE ARE STEPS in a more conservative social direction, to be sure. But we would do well to observe that in our current milieu, despite widespread economic inequality, our social equality has reached such an extreme that people, while quick to jump all over anyone who expresses any sort of viewpoint that is not in lockstep with the party line that all cultures are equally good and great, no matter how vicious, vulgar or self-destructive such cultures might actually be, will, conversely, fear to condemn even the most outrageously crude and offensive public conduct.7 So a little dose of conservatism in this particular respect isn’t such a bad thing. In a stifling orthodoxy, a bit of rebellious cursing and vulgar behavior are healthful antidotes, but in a polity where everyone is cursing unceremoniously and unapologetically, refusing to curse and to be vulgar and being willing to condemn those who do are the kinds of acts of rebellion we need if we are to entertain any hope of putting the brakes on our rapid descent into cultural mediocrity.

Conversely, a people that takes pride in its way of doing things, its norms, mores, traditions and cultural legacies, a people that has standards it is willing to get behind, that has the confidence to respect others but is, nonetheless, unwilling to tolerate other approaches that denigrate its traditions, desecrate what it holds sacred or impinge upon the particular brand of excellence it strives to uphold, is a people capable of greatness. We face a stark choice: either, as it were, the Romans must re-assert the Roman Way or else the barbarians will prevail, and the Empire will collapse, for this is what those who are indifferent to the demise of the humanities do not understand: when we lose our interest in our humanities, what we are losing is nothing less than our interest in ourselves, in our way of life, in our collective visions of all that makes our lives worth living. When such visions no longer compel, when our poets are no longer the unacknowledged legislators of the world, we can no longer be its acknowledged legislators. The moment we cease believing in the 2D worlds that imagine it into being, our 4D world crumbles to dust.

Alexander Zubatov is a partner in the New York law firm Scarola Malone & Zubatov LLP. He also writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction. His essays have appeared in The Montreal Review, the New English Review, and in the journal Culture Wars (June 6, 2013).  His film analyses have appeared in Senses of Cinema and in Bright Lights Film Journal, and his poetry has appeared in the Dudley Review.


  2. See, e.g.,
  3. See
  5. See, e.g., Neil Parr-Davies’ critique of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; see also Boroditsky, L. (2003), “Linguistic Relativity” in Nadel, L. (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. MacMillan Press: London, UK, pages 917-921.
  6. See, e.g., “How might we use language to shape a creative culture,” Harvard Business Review, 2 January 2014. Retrieved 10 may 2014
  7. Cf. “Uncivil Tongues“, a review by Joseph Bottum, describing a recent book on the history of swearing in which the author argues that race- and gender-based epithets have replaced traditional sex- and religion-based swear words in our hierarchy of taboos.
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Alejandro Moreno S.
9 years ago

Wonderful article. It nailed several big hairy audacious paradigms right on the head. That it mentioned such things as – the heat and cold of the forging of personal growth/transformation, repressive sublimation and cognitive dissonance – were what really put this article into that “wow, just, wow” category (and in a good way, not the sarcastic way). One thing I wanted to mention with regards to cognitive dissonance – “Our psychologists might conceive of this process under the rubric of cognitive dissonance…” – yes, there are many people who through cognitive dissonance use their material/economic “success” as proof/justification of their… Read more »

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