April 01, 2013
by Jalees Rehman
Nietzschean, Heideggerian, fascist, anarchist, libertarian, brilliant genius, blabbering nutjob - these and many other labels have probably been used to describe Peter Sloterdijk, who is one of Germany's most widely known contemporary philosophers. He has achieved a rock-star status in the echelons of contemporary German thinkers, perhaps because none is more apt than Sloterdijk at fulfilling the true purpose of a public intellectual: inculcating his audience with an insatiable desire to think. His fans adore him; his critics are maddened by him. Few, if any, experience indifference when they encounter the provocateur Sloterdijk.
Sloterdijk achieved fame in Germany after publishing his masterpiece "Kritik der zynischen Vernunft" (English translation: "Critique of Cynical Reason") in 1983, but his hosting of the regular late-night talk show "Das Philosophische Quartett" on the major German TV network ZDF for ten years turned him into a cultural icon and a household name. I realize that it might seem strange to non-Germans that philosophers instead of comedians can host TV talk shows, however Sloterdijk would probably be the first to agree that there isn't much of a difference between a true comedian and a true philosopher. Not only do we Germans have TV philosophers, we even enjoy the TV gossip and cockfights that they indulge in. When the ZDF network decided to get rid of Sloterdijk and replace him with the younger, more handsome and less thoughtful philosopher Richard David Precht, they start engaging in reciprocal mockery and name-calling.
Unfortunately, Sloterdijk is not quite so well-known in the English-speaking world and this may in part be due to the fact that much of his oeuvre has only recently been translated into the English language. It is no easy feat to translate his writings, in part because his playful mastery of German words is one of his signatures. Sloterdijk is a wonderful story-teller who weaves in beautiful images and puns into his narration, many of which are unique to the German language. His story-telling also makes it difficult to understand some of his texts in the original German. One may be enthralled by his stories, but after reading a whole chapter or book, it is quite difficult to condense it into a handy "message" or "point". Sloterdijk is a professional digressor, going off on tangents that are entertaining and exciting, but at times quite frustrating. He shares his brilliant insights on a broad range of topics ranging from metaphysics to politics with his readers, but he also offers practical advice on how we can change our lives as well as bizarre and pompous statements.
One of his more recent books is called "Philosophische Temperamente: Von Platon bis Foucault", which can be translated as "Philosophical Temperaments: From Plato to Foucault" and it is not yet available in an English translation. In the 1990s, Sloterdijk assembled a collection of texts and excerpts by 19 philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Bruno, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Hegel, Schelling, Fichte, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Sartre, Foucault) which he felt ought to be studied. Sloterdijk was convinced that the best way to truly approach a philosopher was to read the primary texts instead of relying on secondary sources. He also wrote short prefaces for the 19 volumes, each containing 400-500 pages of texts by one philosopher. The prefaces were intended to serve as brief introductions, enticing the readers to delve into the main volume. These prefaces were not academic-style summaries of the lives or works of the philosophers, they were verbal portraits painted by Sloterdijk. They were subjective impressions of their philosophical moods and temperaments, which explains why the collection of these 19 prefaces was released under the title "Philosophical Temperaments".
As with so many portraits, they reveal more about the painter than the subject of the portrait. "Philosophische Temperamente" allows us to take a peek into Sloterdijk's own temperaments. These portraits are stand-alone essays, but what is most striking is that despite their brevity, they are packed with provocative insights. The whole book has only 144 pages and only few of them are longer than seven pages. Even in these tiny portraits, Sloterdijk manages to digress, using a few core ideas of the philosopher as a starting point and then drawing parallels to our lives today. But it is precisely these kinds of digressions and parallels that remind us why these dusty classic of philosophy continue to be relevant for our lives.
This past decade has seen the rise of the TED-talk mentality. The idea of providing a forum for innovative thinkers to share their ideas with rich conference attendees, as well as the not-so-rich general public via a free internet broadcast has become a hot fad. Now that we are inundated with thousands of TED-talks and TED-copycats, many of us have developed TED-fatigue. The expression "TEDtalking" may soon become a new form of insult, referring to the watering down and oversimplifying of complex ideas, the sharing of touching and life-changing personal stories or exuding excessive positivity which fills the audience with vacuous joy and earns a heartfelt applause. I always thought of Sloterdijk as the prototypical anti-TEDtalker, because his writings do not attempt to leave the reader in a happy and cozy place. Sloterdijk likes to challenge us, evoking intellectual unease and restlessness in our minds and invites us to disagree. His essays and books with all their digressions tend to be so long, that I thought it was inconceivable for him to condense them into a 15 minute TED time slot. Sloterdijk does not offer any convenient prefab take-home messages or TED-style smug happiness.
After reading "Philosophische Temperamente", I have begun to reconsider my views on Sloterdijk and TED-talks. In these 19 mini-essays, Sloterdijk gives TED-talks without TEDtalking. His TED stands for "Tease Entertain Disagree" and instead of the traditional TED motto of "Ideas worth spreading", Sloterdijk presents us with "Ideas worth critiquing". Perhaps the organizers and presenters at TED-conferences could learn something from Sloterdijk's style.
Each mini-essay is a teaser which could potentially ignite discussions, not only about a specific philosopher, but also about the role of philosophy itself. The portrait of Augustine, arguably the least flattering of all portraits in the book, suggests that he infused Western thought with a sense of debasing anti-humanist "masochism", the idea that humankind is worthless, were it not for the grace of God. This idea thus directly connects Augustine to contemporary debates revolving around the role of religion, which do not only apply to Augustine or Christianity, but to all religions. Similarly, all other portraits also offer similarly provocative statements.
Here are translations of a few short excerpts from the book:
The chapter on Plato is the longest in Sloterdijk's book, but it discusses far more than just Plato, ranging from the purpose of philosophy to the ills of contemporary fundamentalism.
„Der Fundamentalismus, der heute weltweit aus dem Mißtrauen gegen die Modernität entspringt, kann immer nur Hilfskonstruktion für Hilflose liefern; er erzeugt nur Scheinsicherheiten ohne Weiterwissen; auf lange Sicht ruiniert er die befallenen Gesellschaften durch die Drogen der falschen Gewißheit."
"The world-wide phenomenon of fundamentalism which in today's world is rooted in a distrust of modernity can only serve as futile aides for the helpless; it generates pseudo-certainties without the desire for further knowledge; in the long run it ruins the afflicted societies with the addictive drug of false certainty."
The portrait of Schopenhauer introduces him as the pioneering thinker who quit the "Church of Reason" ("Vernunftkirche").
„Von Schopenhauer könnte der Satz stammen: Nur die Verzweiflung kann uns noch retten; er hatte freilich nicht von Verzweiflung, sondern von Verzicht gesprochen. Verzicht ist für die Modernen das schwierigste Wort der Welt."
„Schopenhauer might have uttered the phrase: Only desperation can save us. Yet he did not speak of despair, but of renunciation. Renunciation is the most difficult word for the modern world."
This passage from the chapter on Marx includes a fascinating statement about contemporary media:
„Telekommunikation läßt sich von Televampyrismus immer schwerer unterscheiden. Fernseher und Fernsauger schöpfen aus einer verflüssigten Welt, die kaum noch weiß, was widerstandsfähiges oder eigenes Leben wäre."
"It is becoming difficult to distinguish between telecommunication and televampirism. Television and Telesuction draw from a liquefied world that hardly knows the concept of an independent or resistant life."
It is difficult to translate Sloterdijk's neologism "Fernsauger", which literally means "tele-sucker" or "tele-suction device". In the original German, it is a beautiful play on the words Fernseher (television or tele-viewer) and the German word for a vacuum cleaner ("Staubsauger" , literally a "dust-sucker").
„Was Sartre angeht, so blieb er zeitlebens seiner Weise, die bodenlose Freiheit zu leben, treu. Für ihn war das Nichts der Subjektivität kein herabziehender Abgrund, sondern eine heraufsprudelnde Quelle, ein Überschuß an Verneinungskraft gegen alles Umschließende."
"As for Sartre, he remained true to leading a life of boundless freedom. For him, the void of subjectivity was not an abyss that pulls us down. Instead, it was a spring, gushing upwards and resisting all forms of enclosure."
English-speaking readers will soon be able to read a translation of the complete book, to be published by Columbia University Press in May 2013. I have not yet seen the translation, but I suspect and hope that the nature of this particular Sloterdijk book will make it one of the most accessible introductions to Sloterdijk's thinking and explanation for why we should continue to study classic Western philosophers.
March 04, 2013
by Jalees Rehman
"For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency."
The British-Australian art curator Nick Waterlow was tragically murdered on November 9, 2009 in the Sydney suburb of Randwick. His untimely death shocked the Australian art community, not only because of the gruesome nature of his death – Waterlow was stabbed alongside his daughter by his mentally ill son – but also because his death represented a major blow to the burgeoning Australian art community. He was a highly regarded art curator, who had served as a director of the Sydney Biennale and international art exhibitions and was also an art ambassador who brought together artists and audiences from all over the world.
After his untimely death, his partner Juliet Darling discovered some notes that Waterlow had jotted down shortly before his untimely death to characterize what defines and motivates a good art curator and he gave them the eerily prescient title “A Curator’s Last Will and Testament”:
2. An eye of discernment
3. An empty vessel
4. An ability to be uncertain
5. Belief in the necessity of art and artists
6. A medium— bringing a passionate and informed understanding of works of art to an audience in ways that will stimulate, inspire, question
7. Making possible the altering of perception.
Waterlow’s notes help dismantle the cliché of stuffy old curators walking around in museums who ensure that their collections remain unblemished and instead portray the curator as a passionate person who is motivated by a desire to inspire artists and audiences alike.
The Evolving Roles of Curators
The traditional role of the curator was closely related to the Latin origins of the word, “curare” refers to “to take care of”, “to nurse” or “to look after”. Curators of museums or art collections were primarily in charge of preserving, overseeing, archiving and cataloging the artifacts that were placed under their guardianship. As outlined in “Thinking Contemporary Curating” by Terry Smith, the latter half of 20th century witnessed the emergence of new roles for art curators, both private curators and those formally employed as curators by museum or art collections. Curators not only organized art exhibitions but were given an increasing degree of freedom in terms of choosing the artists and themes of the exhibitions and creating innovative opportunities for artists to interact with their audiences. The art exhibition itself became a form of art, a collage of art assembled by the curators in a unique manner.
Curatorial roles can be broadly divided into three domains:
1) Custodial – perhaps most in line with traditional curating in which the curator primarily maintains or preserves art collections
2) Navigatory – a role which has traditionally focused on archiving and cataloging pieces of art so that audiences can readily access art
3) Discerning – the responsibility of a curator to decide which artists and themes to include and feature, using the “eye of discernment” described by Nick Waterlow
Creativity and Curating
The diverse roles of curators are characterized by an inherent tension. Curators are charged with conserving and maintaining art (and by extension, culture) in their custodial roles, but they also seek out new forms of art and experiment with novel ways to exhibit art in their electoral roles. Terry Smith’s “Thinking Contemporary Curating” shows how the boundaries between curator and artist are becoming blurry, because exhibiting art itself requires an artistic and creative effort. Others feel that the curators or exhibition makers need to be conscious of their primary role as facilitators and that they should not “compete” with the artists whose works they are exhibiting. This raises the question of whether the process of curating art is actually creative.
It is difficult to find a universal and generally accepted definition of what constitutes creativity because it is such a subjective concept, but the definition provided by Jonathan Plucker and colleagues in their paper “Why Isn’t Creativity More Important to Educational Psychologists? Potentials, Pitfalls, and Future Directions in Creativity Research” is an excellent starting point:
“Creativity is the interaction among aptitude, process, and environment by which an individual or group produces a perceptible product that is both novel and useful as defined within a social context.”
Using this definition, assembling an art exhibition is indeed creative – it generates a “perceptible product” which is both novel and useful to the audiences that attend the exhibition as well as to the artists who are being provided new opportunities to showcase their work. The aptitude, process and environment that go into the assembly and design of an art exhibition differ among all curators, so that each art exhibition reflects the creative signature of a unique curator.
Ubiquity of Curators
The formal title “curator” is commonly used for art curators or museum curators, but curatorial activity – in its custodial, navigatory and discerning roles – is not limited to these professions. Librarians, for example, have routinely acted as curators of books. Their traditional focus has been directed towards their custodial and navigatory roles, cataloging and preserving books, and helping readers navigate through the vast jungle of published books.
Unlike the key role that art curators play in organizing art exhibitions, librarians are not the primary organizers of author readings, book fairs or other literary events, which are instead primarily organized by literary magazines, literary agents, publishers or independent bookstores. It remains to be seen whether the literary world will also witness the emergence of librarians as curators of such literary events, similar to what has occurred in the art world. Our local public library occasionally organizes a “Big Read” event for which librarians select a specific book and recommend that the whole community read the book. The librarians then lead book discussions with members of the community and also offer additional reading materials that relate to the selected book. Such events do not have the magnitude of an art exhibition, but they are innovative means by which librarians interact with the community and inspire readers.
One of the most significant curatorial contributions in German literary history was the collection of fairy-tales and folk-tales by the Brothers Grimm (Brüder Grimm or Gebrüder Grimm), Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Readers may not always realize how much intellectual effort went into assembling the fairy-tales, many of which co-existed in various permutations depending on the region of where the respective tales were being narrated. I own a copy of the German language edition of the “Children's and Household Tales” (Kinder- und Hausmärchen) which contains all their original annotations. These annotations allow the reader to peek behind the scenes and see the breadth of their curatorial efforts, especially their “eye of discernment”. For example, the version of Snow-White that the Brothers Grimm chose for their final edition contains the infamous scene in which the evil Queen asks her mirror, “Mirror, Mirror on the wall, Who is the prettiest in all the land?” She naturally expects the mirror to say that the Queen is the prettiest, because she just finished feasting on what she presumed were Snow-White’s liver and lungs and is convinced that Snow-White is dead. According to the notes of the Brothers Grimm, there was a different version of the Snow-White tale in which the Queen does not ask a mirror, but instead asks Snow-White’s talking pet dog, which is cowering under a bench after Snow-White’s disappearance and happens to be called “Spiegel” (German for “Mirror”)! I am eternally grateful for the curatorial efforts of the Brothers Grimm because I love the symbolism of the Queen speaking to a mirror and because I do not have to agonize over understanding why Snow-White named her pet dog “Mirror” or expect a Disneyesque movie with the title “Woof Woof” instead of “Mirror Mirror”.
The internet is now providing us access to an unprecedented and overwhelming amount of information. Every year, millions of articles, blog posts, images and videos are being published online. Older texts, images and videos that were previously published in more traditional formats are also being made available for online consumption. The book “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” by James Gleick is quite correct in using expressions such as “information glut” or “deluge” to describe how we are drowning in information. Gleick also aptly uses the allegory of the “Library of Babel”, a brilliant short story written by Jorge Luis Borges about an imaginary library consisting of hexagonal rooms that is finite in size but contains an unfathomably large number of books, all possible permutations of sequences of letters. Most of these books are pure gibberish, because they are random sequences of letters, but amidst billions of such books, one is bound to find at least a handful with some coherent phrases. Borges' story also mentions a mythical “Book-Man”, a god-like librarian who has seen the ultimate cipher to the library, a book which is the compendium of all other books. Borges originally wrote the story in 1941, long before the internet era, but the phrase "For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency" rings even more true today when we think of the information available on the web.
This overwhelming and disorienting torrent of digital information has given rise to a new group of curators, internet or web curators, who primarily focus on the navigatory and discerning roles of curatorship. Curatorial websites or blogs such as 3quarksdaily, Brainpickings or Longreads comb through mountains of online information and try to select a handful of links to articles, essays, poems, short stories, videos, images or books which they deem to be the most interesting, provocative or inspiring for their readers. They disseminate these links to their readers and followers by posting excerpts or quotes on their respective websites or by using social media networks such as Twitter. The custodial role of preserving online information is not really the focus of internet curators; instead, internet curators are primarily engaged in navigatory and discerning roles. In addition to the emergence of professional internet curatorship through such websites or blogs, a number of individuals have also begun to function as volunteer internet curators and help manage digital information.
Analogous to art curatorship, internet curatorship also requires a significant creative effort. Each internet curator uses individual criteria to create their own collage of information and themes they focus on. Even when internet curators have thematic overlaps, they may still decide to feature or disseminate very different types of information, because the individuals engaged in curatorship have very distinct tastes and subjective curatorial criteria. One curator’s chaff is another curator’s wheat.
Formal Education and Training in Internet Curation
There are no formal training programs that train people to become internet curators. Most popular internet curators usually have a broad range of interests ranging from the humanities, arts and sciences to literature and politics. They use their own experience and expertise in these areas to help them select the best links that they then pass on to their readers or followers. Some internet curators are open to suggestions from their readers, thus crowd-sourcing their curatorial activity, others routinely browse selected websites or social media feeds of individuals which they deem to be the most interesting, others may plug in their favorite words to scour the web for intriguing new articles.
Internet curation will become even more important in the next decades as the amount of information we amass will likely continue to grow exponentially. Not just individuals, but even corporations and governments will need internet curators who can sift through information and distilling it down to manageable levels, without losing critical content. In light of this anticipated need for internet curators, one should ask the question whether it is time to envision formal training programs that help prepare people for future jobs as internet curators. Internet curation is both an art and a science – the art of the curatorial process is to creatively assemble information in a manner that attracts and inspires readers while the science of internet curation involves using search algorithms that do not just rely on subjective and arbitrary criteria but systematically interrogate vast amounts of information that are now globally available. A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree program in Internet Curation could conceivably train students in the art and science of internet curation.
In scientific manuscripts, it is common for scientists to cite the preceding work of colleagues. Other colleagues who provide valuable tools, such as plasmids for molecular biology experiments, are cited in the “Acknowledgements” section of a manuscript. Colleagues whose input substantially contributed to the manuscript or the scientific work are included as co-authors. Current academic etiquette does not necessarily acknowledge the curatorial efforts of scientists who may have nudged their colleagues into a certain research direction by forwarding an important paper that they might have otherwise ignored.
Especially in world in which meaningful information is becoming one of our most valuable commodities, it might be time to start acknowledging the flux of information that shapes our thinking and our creativity. We are beginning to recognize the importance of people who are links in the information chain and help separate out meaningful information from the “senseless cacophony”. Perhaps we should therefore also acknowledge all the sources of information, not only those who generated it but also those who manage the information or guide us towards the information. Such a curatorial credit or Q-credit could be added to the end of an article. It would not only acknowledge the intellectual efforts of the information curators, but it could also serve as a curation map which would inspire readers to look at the individual elements in the information chain. The readers would be able to consult the nodes or elements that were part of the information chain (instead of just relying on lone cited references) and choose to take alternate curation paths.
I will try to illustrate a Q-credit using the example of Abbas Raza who pointed me towards a 3quarksdaily discussion of “Orientalism” and an essay by the philosopher Akeel Bilgrami. Even though I had previously read Edward Said’s book “Orientalism”, the profound insights in Bilgrami’s essay made me re-read Edward Said’s book. The Q-credit could be acknowledged as follows:
Q-Credit: Abbas Raza --> The 2008 3Quarksdaily Forum on Occidentalism --> “Occidentalism, the Very Idea: An Essay on Enlightenment and Enchantment” by Akeel Bilgrami published 2008 on 3Quarksdaily.com and 2006 in Critical Inquiry --> Bilgrami identifies five broad themes in Edward Said’sOrientalism
The acknowledgement of information flux is already part of the Twitter netiquette. The German theologian Barbara Mack uses her Twitter handle @faraway67 to curate important new articles about history, science, music, photography, linguistics and literature. She sees the role of web curators similar to that of music conductors, who do not compose original pieces of music but instead enable the access of an audience to the original creative work. She says that “web curation is a relatively new field of dealing with information and good curation is an act of creativity which requires dedication and a keen sense for content.” She agrees that curators should indeed be given credit, “not only out of courtesy but to acknowledge their efforts of taking upon the challenge of bringing the vast information the web provides into a handy form for their followers to enjoy.”
Twitter curators such as Barbara Mack use abbreviations such as h/t (hat-tip) or RT (retweet) followed by a Twitter handle to acknowledge their sources. Contemporary Twitter netiquette suggests that if curated links of use to followers, these should acknowledge the curators' efforts before tweeting them on.
One challenge that is intrinsic to Twitter (but may in an analogous fashion apply to other social media networks as well) is that each tweet can only contain 140 characters, which presently makes it very difficult to acknowledge the comprehensive curatorial information flux. If I decide to tweet on an interesting article about the philosophy of science, which I found in the Twitter feed of person X, the space limitations may make it impossible for me to give credit to all the preceding members of the information chain which had directed X’s attention to that specific article. The Q-credit system may thus be best suited for acknowledgements at the end of blog posts or articles, but not for social media messaging with strict space limitations.
The Future of Internet Curation
The area of internet curation is still in its infancy and it is very difficult to predict how it will evolve. Managing online information will become increasingly important. Even though such managerial roles may not necessarily carry the title “internet curator”, there is little doubt that managing online information in a meaningful manner is one of the biggest challenges that we will face in the 21st century. I am quite optimistic that we will be able to address this challenge, but the first hurdle is to recognize it.
Image Credit: The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593)
1. “The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity” (2010) by James C. Kaufman and Robert J. Sternberg --> Chapter 3 “Assessment of Creativity” by Jonathan A. Plucker and Matthew C. Makel --> “Why Isn’t Creativity More Important to Educational Psychologists? Potentials, Pitfalls, and Future Directions in Creativity Research” (2004) by Jonathan A. Plucker et al. in EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST, 39(2), 83–96
3. Book review of “The Information” at Brainpickings --> “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” (2011) by James Gleick --> “Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges as an allegory for the information glut
February 18, 2013
Silicon Valley, Literary Capital of the 21st Century
by James McGirk
Technology seeps into our imaginations, changes the way we think and the way we write. The novel may seem like a relic, a low-bandwidth version of virtual reality better suited to the 19th and 20th Centuries than today. But beneath its grim monochrome interface (a.k.a. “pages”) it glows like the neon-piped suits in Tron. Contemporary fiction is nearly as much a product of Silicon Valley as the integrated circuit.
Fiction, on a crass, fundamental level, isn’t much more than a container for a story. Most stories have already been told (by William Shakespeare—or at least it feels that way), so the challenge of writing fiction is to find a new way to contain a story. This experimental impulse is tempered by a reader’s ability to decode what is going on. As readers have grown more accustomed to following hyperlinks and leaping about the Internet, their ability to understand information out of sequence has changed too.
Consider three popular, experimental novels and the technology of the era: David Foster Wallace’s (1996) Infinite Jest was written at the dawn of the Internet Age. The Internet was in an ugly growth spurt then. Amateurs created most online content. Big chunks of the Internet blossomed and died seemingly overnight. It was common to see gaping holes where content was no longer compatible. Following hyperlinks from page to page felt jarring (particularly given how slow most connections were). Wallace wanted to compress information in the Infinite Jest but he didn’t want to disrupt his timeline. So he chose endnotes to digress with—a fairly conventional device, although one not often used for fiction. He even said (to The New Yorker): “I pray they are nothing like hypertext.”
Endnotes are hypertext, however. They just happen to predate the Internet and, since they are numbered, romp alongside the text in a linear fashion (and nestle at the end of chapters, where they won’t distract readers). That’s not the case for the digressions in Dave Eggers’ A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). Eggers digresses like Wallace does, but his digressions actually separate from the text, sometimes even forming self-contained documents.
It makes sense that Eggers was a magazine editor before he wrote the book. There’s almost a house style to A Heart Breaking Work. His asides could have been “front of the book” articles, accompanying and amplifying the main feature: Eggers’ story about raising his younger brother. The genius of A Heart Breaking Work is the way that Eggers bound it all together. Without that ever-so slightly smarmy voice, his story would have been unintelligible.
Ten years later, attitudes toward the virtual had changed considerably: Facebook, which didn’t exist when Eggers’ wrote A Heartbreaking Work, reached half a billion users, almost double the population of the United States. Office workers could no longer plead computer illiteracy. Jennifer Egan dropped an entire PowerPoint presentation into her (2010) A Visit from the Goon Squad. Her readers understood what it was, and what it meant, and what’s more Egan got the weird, confined, timeless, disassociated feeling that a PowerPoint presentation imposes on its audience, and she tweezed it out, and used that feeling to amplify the other loosely connected stories in her novel.
This is a reductive way of looking at three important novels; but fiction has changed as technology has penetrated the lives of its readers. Of course, readers, writers and editors are not the only stakeholders in the writing business. Logistics quietly informs what we read. There is a vast industrial apparatus supporting the contemporary novel, and, like writers and readers, it too has evolved as technology has spread.
Literary historian Pascale Casanova described the global marketplace for literature as “the world republic of letters.” Writers are everywhere, but their influence is unevenly distributed. During secondary school, the entire Anglophone world is made to suffer through Shakespeare. Young wannabes flood the outer boroughs of New York City hoping to join the ranks of the “Jonathans” [Lethem, Franzen, Safran Foer…]. Through military power, proximity to printer’s presses and pure accident, cities like Paris, London and New York wield enormous literary influence relative to their size. But the contours of cultural power are changing. Silicon Valley is beginning to surpass the old capitals of literary clout.
This clout is increasingly concentrated in what futurist Bruce Sterling calls the “five stacks.” Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft are gobbling up the Internet like marauding PacMen and rebuilding it in their images. Apple designs, builds and sells computers and their operating systems, for example; Microsoft does the same with office productivity software and PCs; Facebook does it with social networks; Google for navigating the Internet and advertising; Amazon for selling and shipping items. These companies are vertically integrating, in other words, they are trying to control every aspect of their category, making it as user-friendly and predictable as possible, and walling it off from potential competitors. They do this by meticulously analyzing their users’ behavior and adapting to it. This customer-first mentality is downright corrosive to literature.
Behind the scenes, the great software companies constantly tweak things. They look at what people click on, what they share, how long they spend on pages, and what they search for. The Internet is becoming more intuitive. This is great for shopping but it is killing content. There is a reason why the Daily Mail has become the most popular news website. By the numbers, all people want from the Internet are cheap kicks. The Mail provides them: see the pneumatic sexpots climbing their sidebars, the chilling crimes, zoo babies and kittens, and all those other pretty, petty, treats.
Scientists at John Hopkins University have extrapolated that the Universe, on average, is pale beige in color (“Cosmic Latte”) and smells of burnt sugar. The Internet is a painless, more convenient reflection of the real world. If it were averaged out, rather than be the color of foam bleeding off of a nice latte, it would have the golden sheen of corn syrup: it’s tooth-rot, in other words, and most of what we read, really, most of what we experience now, for better or worse seems to reflect the sinister glow of the ultra-tweaked Internet.
Agents and publishers are reluctant to buy a novel with a narrator whose opinions or actions might revolt or frighten their readers. The sleek charm that held A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius together is all but mandated now. Combine that with a tendency to skate through torrents of information and write about that, rather than trying to animate text with experience, and you get David Mitchell’s (2004) Cloud Atlas.
Cloud Atlas is the Daily Mail of great novels. Here is a novel made up of nested stories, populated by characters whose actions and personalities ripple across space and time. The book is beautifully written; its structure is beyond elegant. The research he’s done is staggering. Yet there is something so cartoonish about it: it is a literary pyrotechnic display, there is not a dram of unpleasant truth. It is as if he, David Mitchell, stopped short of surrendering himself to the evil orbiting in his themes. His reader never gets uncomfortable. It’s all surface.
Not all fiction is shot through with Silicon Valley’s neon-piped charm. Denis Cooper’s Marbled Swarm challenges the way words work and snaps together at the end with a jolt of recognition that condemns the reader as much as it does the story’s murderous protagonist. Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods conceives of a plausible device for relieving sexual tension at the office, then follows the inventor as he builds and arduously succeeds at selling the thing; exposing, damning and even celebrating the late capitalist system in a slim little story.
The best books provide an experience of virtual reality more profound than seducing the reader. When it is good, fiction is sneaky; it slithers into the mind and quietly lifts its blinders. But to deliver its payload, writing must use technology rather surrender to its robotic sentiments.
February 04, 2013
Ecology’s Image Problem
“There are tories in science who regard imagination as a faculty to be avoided rather than employed. They observe its actions in weak vessels and are unduly impressed by its disasters” —John Tyndall, 1870
In his 1881 essay on Mental Imagery, Francis Galton noted that few Fellows of the Royal Society or members of the French Institute, when asked to do so, could imagine themselves sitting at the breakfast-table from which presumably they had only recently arisen. Members of the general public, women especially, fared much better, being able to conjure up vivid images of themselves enjoying their morning meal. From this Galton, an anthropologist, noted polymath, and eugenicist, concluded that learned men, bookish men, relying as they do on abstract thought, depend on mental images little, if at all.
In this rejection of the scientific role for the imagination Galton was in disagreement with Irish physicist John Tyndall who in a 1870 address to the British Association in Liverpool entitled The Scientific Use of the Imagination claimed that in explaining sensible phenomena, scientists habitually form mental images of that which is beyond the immediately sensible. "Newton’s passage from a falling apple to a falling moon”, Tyndall wrote, “was, at the outset, a leap of the prepared imagination.” The imagination, Tyndall claimed, is both the source of poetic genius and an instrument of discovery in science.
The role of the imagination is chemistry, is well enough known. In 1890 the German Chemical Society celebrated the discovery by Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz of the structure of benzene, a ring-shaped aromatic hydrocarbon. At this meeting Kekulé related that the structure of benzene came to him as a reverie of a snake seizing its own tail (the ancient symbol called the Ouroboros).
Since this is quite a celebrated case of the scientific use of the imagination I quote Kekule’s account of the events in full:
“During my stay in Ghent, Belgium, I occupied pleasant bachelor quarters in the main street. My study, however, was in a narrow alleyway and had during the day time no light. For a chemist who spends the hours of daylight in the laboratory this was no disadvantage. I was sitting there engaged in writing my text-book; but it wasn't going very well; my mind was on other things. I turned my chair toward the fireplace and sank into a doze. Again the atoms were flitting before my eyes. Smaller groups now kept modestly in the background. My mind's eye, sharpened by repeated visions of a similar sort, now distinguished larger structures of varying forms. Long rows frequently close together, all, in movement, winding and turning like serpents! And see! What was that? One of the serpents seized its own tail and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. I came awake like a flash of lightning. This time also [he had had fruitful dreams before] I spent the remainder of the night working out the consequences of the hypothesis. If we learn to dream, gentlemen, then we shall perhaps find truth…” Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellsehaft, 1890, 1305-1307 (in Libby 1922).
In supporting his argument about the positive role of the imagination John Tyndall quoted Sir Benjamin Brodie, the chemist, who wrote that the imagination (”that wondrous faculty”) when it is “properly controlled by experience and reflection, becomes the noblest attribute of man”. Brodie cautioned, however, that the imagination when “left to ramble uncontrolled, leads us astray into a wilderness of perplexities and errors…”
The philosopher Vigil Aldrich provided an interesting example of how imagination could be a hindrance to science. Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, the English astrophysicist, referred frequently, according to Aldrich, to “the world outside us”. Consciousness, in contrast, can be described as being “inside of us.” Using such images Eddington was, said Aldrich, “under the spell of the telephone-exchange analogy.” Where the nerve ending leave off the world beyond us takes over. If the telephone exchange image seems ill-chosen, the image, after all, could be worse. One might imagine inner consciousness as a submarine and from our berth within it we come to know the outside world by means of a periscope! Now, Eddington did not use this image (others did) but when we try to make sense of it we can do so only by saying that inner consciousness is like a submarine only when one supposes that it is nothing at all like a submarine. One must “tone down the analogy” to make it useful. If you do otherwise “the lively imagination begins to protest”. Aldrich speculated that theorists persists with inept picture-making because when toned down, it often appeared as if the image is illuminating even when it is not. Moreover, a flashy image is entertaining. Thus one can easily make the “pleasant mistake” of identifying the image with the “real meaning” of an assertion.
A strength of environmental disciplines is that they bring into proximity bodies of knowledge that are often set apart. Though some quibble with him on this, historian of ecology Donald Worster places both Charles Darwin, the philosophical scientist and Henry David Thoreau the scientific philosopher at the ground of ecology as a natural scientific discipline. And though it is fair to say that ecology has maintained an identity largely separate from the environmentalisms it has inspired, nevertheless ecology and environmentalisms have been good conversation partners. Both have listened to an admirable degree to its poets, artists and philosophers. A good thing this may be in many ways, but my contention here is that the environmental sciences and the practices associated with them — environmentalisms like sustainability — are prone of taking their most arresting images too literally. I wonder if there is not in environmental thought a pathology of the imagination? Too readily, it seems, we transform a provocative image into a proven hypothesis; we smuggle ancient and baffling worldviews into contemporary conceptions of nature.
I sketch a few examples here to illustrate the case. Perhaps you will have ones that you can add.
Nature as an Organism
You are justified in calling Nature your Mother if you have a mother who wants you dead. A Mother who inculcated both your limitations and your accomplishments. Nature: A Mother who birthed a world equipped with tooth and nail and hungry eye; whose family tie is the ripping of flesh. Why, I wonder, are we quick to demand of God an explanation of evil but incline less to asking that question of Mother Nature?
To call Nature our mother is just one manifestation of the image of the Earth as organism. It is enduring, compelling and surely wrong-footing.
University of Wisconsin historian Frank N. Egerton traces the myth of cosmos as organism back to Plato. Timaeus asked “In the likeness of what animal did the Creator make the world?” He then speculated as follows: “For the Deity, intending to make this world like the fairest and most perfect of intelligible beings, framed one visible animal comprehending within itself all other animals of a kindred nature.” Because of Plato’s fateful influence on the history of western thought, Egerton noted that the implications of this myth have been enduring. According to Egerton the myth is the source of two related concepts “the supraorganismic balance-of-nature concept and the microcosm-macrocosm concept.” The supraorganismic concept views the cosmos as having the attributes of a living thing whereas the microcosm-macrocosm concept takes different parts of the universe to correspond with an organismal body.
Both flavors of the organismal concept get expressed in ecosystem ecology. Natural ecosystems, the influential University of Georgia ecology Eugene Odum asserted, are integrated wholes, and developed in a manner that parallels the development of individual organisms or human societies. The development of the natural systems, ecological succession in other words, is orderly, predictable, and directional. It leads, in Odum’s view of things, to a stabilized ecosystem with predictable ratios of biomass, productivity, respiration and so forth. The “strategy” of ecosystem development, as Odum called it, corresponds to the “strategy” for long-term evolutionary development of the biosphere – “namely, increased control of, or homeostasis with, the physical environment in the sense of achieving maximum protection from its perturbations.” Homeostasis etymologically derives from the Greek “standing-still” and in the sense that Odum meant to imply, indicates a dynamic and regulated stability. In other words, the stability of the organism.
Odum does not stand here accused of covertly importing the organismal image into his work; he was quite explicit about it. There is much to admire in Odum’s work and the ecology that he inspired, but the sense of design and purpose that it implied in nature (what philosophers call teleology) put Odum's ecosystem ecology at loggerheads with contemporary evolutionary theory which insists on the purposelessness of nature. It has taken quite some time to reconcile ecosystem thought with evolutionary theory.
Another example of the superorganism’s baleful influence can be found in the Gaia hypothesis. In his preface to Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) Lovelock wrote:
“The concept of Mother Earth or, as the Greeks called her long ago, Gaia, has been widely held throughout history and has been the basis of a belief which still coexists with the great religions."
If the development of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia hypothesis is anything to go by, hypotheses about the workings of nature derived from the organismal image of nature have a shelf life of a decade or so. Lovelock’s Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth was published in 1979 and he rescinded the teleological claims of the Gaia hypothesis by 1988 in his book Ages of Gaia — or at least he became attentive to the problems that the superorganism concept created. He still maintains that the Earth’s atmosphere is homeostatically regulated but he admitted to not having been led astray by the sirens of the superorganism.
It is a banality of the ecological sciences to state that everything is connected. That ebullient Scot, and eventual stalwart of the American wilderness movement, John Muir, provided the image. He wrote, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."
And if such statements are employed to sponsor a notion that individual organisms cannot be regarded in isolation from those that they consume, and those that can consume them, or furthermore, that as a consequence of the deep intersections of the living and the never-alive, that there can been unforeseen consequences flowing from species additions or removals from ecosystems, then few may argue with this. However, just as the ripples of a stone dropped in a still pond propagate successfully only to its edges (though they may entrain delightful patterns in the finest of its marginal sands), not every ecological event has intolerably large costs to exact. True, if the dominoes line-up and the circumstances are just so, a butterfly’s wing beat over the Pacific may hurl a typhoon against its shores, but more often than not such lepidopterous catastrophes do not come to pass.
Ecosystems, energized so that matter cycles and conjoins the living with the dead, have their lines of demarcation, borders defined by their internal interactions being more powerful than their external ones. They are therefore buffered against many potentially contagious disasters. This, of course, is the essence of resilience - the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance without disruption to habitual structure and function. Ecology is as much the science investigating the limits of connections as it is the thought that everything is connected.
The Community Concept
Is there a greater 20th Century American environmental thinker than Aldo Leopold? Certainly there few that provided as many genuinely poetic images: in the eyes of a dying wolf he saw “a fierce green fire”, he exhorted us to “think like a mountain”, he depicted the crane as “wilderness incarnate”. For all of that, has Leopold not led us astray, with images associated with of the “ethical sequence”? Leopold’s influential land ethic “enlarges the boundaries of the community concept.” The ethical sequence that he proposed progresses stutteringly from free men, to women, to slaves, to animals, plants, rocks and land. It has a compelling lucidity. Leopold admitted, however, that it seems a little too simple. The ethic invites us into community with the land. A person’s self-image will change under a land ethic: “In short,” Leopold writes “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror plain member and citizen of it.”
Now, Leopold is a subtle thinker and knows not to confuse the image with the thing. Certainly he expected this transformation to take quite some time. The land ethic would not emerge without “an internal change in our intellectual emphases, loyalties, affections, and convictions.” Now I have little problem with the image of extending the ethical circle other than noting that it makes it seem easier than it has proven to be. My more serious objection concerns the rather thin notion of community that seems to be implied in Leopold image of the plain citizen. As environmental philosopher William Jordan III has illustrated in his book The Sunflower Forest (2003), missing from Leopold’s account is any acknowledgment of the negative elements of the human experience of community: envy, selfishness, fear, hatred, and shame. As Jordan pointed out this leads Leopold and others to “a sentimental, moralizing philosophy that…insists on the naturalness of humans…but that neglects or downplays the radical difficulty of achieving such a sense of self, and also downplays the role of culture and cultural institutions in carrying out this work.” If Leopold’s image of the community and our place within it is an impoverished one, the work of extending the circle becomes impossible.
There are other images that we might have discussed here. Ones that have had, at times at least, unfortunate implications for environmental thinking. For instance, in 1864 George Perkins Marsh wrote that mankind is disruptive, not just occasionally, mind you, but “is everywhere a disturbing agent.” One hundred years later the Wilderness Act renews the image in the definition of wilderness as an area “untrammeled by man.” We might have considered contemporary accounts of social-ecological systems where these systems are posited as a compound substance, but that in depicting them, we tease the components apart again.
So, if environmental thought and ecological science has been susceptible to what my colleague and friend Professor David Wise of University of Illinois, Chicago, has called “malicious metaphors”, is there a more productive way to think about the role of the image in developing environmental thought?
The work of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884 - 1862) — one of the more lovable of the French phenomenologists, certainly the hairiest — is helpful in sorting out of a productive role for the imagination in science. He was renowned for his work on epistemological issues in science as well as for his phenomenological account of the poetic image, and his philosophical meditation on reverie. As much as he was a materialist in his approach to science, he was subjective and personal (as a matter of theoretical orientation) in his philosophical work on the imagination.
Bachelard’s work on first glance is so inviting. Chapters in his book The Poetics of Space (1958) have enticing titles like The House from Cellar to Garret, Nests, Shells. Perhaps this is why the book is a philosophic bestseller. My copy claims “more than 80,000 copies sold”. And though indeed opening a Bachelard book is like relaxing into a warm bath, nevertheless there is an astringent in those waters. The thought is somewhat obscure as Bachelard ransacks the lexicon of the various disciplines he brings together in his work: Kantian philosophy, Husserlian phenomenology, Jungian psychoanalysis etc. Oftentimes his use of technical terms was novel; reinterpreting them, Bachelard pushed them into new service. Because of this density, I wonder how many of those 80,000 copies have languished on bookshelves? Mine certainly did until the past few weeks.
To enjoy the fruits of Bachelard’s insights we should do at least some of the work of appreciating how he produced them. In the hope that this will embolden you to return to your copy of The Poetics of Space, or other works by Bachelard on the imagination, or pick them up for the first time, I will give a summary, as best I understand it, of what his phenomenology of the image is all about. I am, I should tell you, strictly an amateur Bachelardian.
The poetic image is eruptive for both poet and reader. Bachelard say that for its creation “the flicker of the soul is all that is needed.” So, every great image is its own origin. Famously, Bachelard maintained that the imagination, contrary to view of many philosophical accounts, is “the faculty of deforming images offered by perception.” The poetic image emerges into the consciousness as a direct product of “the heart, soul and being of man.” Elsewhere Bachelard claims “the imagination [is] a major power of the human nature.”
The poetic image is therefore not caught up in a network of causalities. Our first recourse should not be to ask what archetypes an image represents, or what aspects of the poet’s psycho-biography explains it away. In this assertion Bachelard remains true to phenomenology’s maxim of going “back to the things themselves.” In as much as such things are possible, one approaches the poetic image freed from all presuppositions.
So it is of secondary importance to ask where an artistic image comes from; what matters more is to explore what opportunities for freedom an image creates. Instead of cause and effect, at the center point of which we traditionally ask the image to stand, rather we might speak of the “resonances and reverberations” of the image. This is not, I think, just some fanciful softening of language, it is a necessary acknowledgment of the way in which an image does not simply reflect a memory, but rather revives an absent one and the way in which an image explodes into images. When we read the poetic image it resonates, when we communicate it it reverberates. The repercussions of the image, said Bachelard, “invite us to give greater depth to our own existence.” What bearing does an image have on our freedom? A great piece of art, Bachelard says “awakens images that have been effaced, at the same time that it confirms the unforeseeable nature of speech. And if we render speech unforeseeable, is this not an apprenticeship to freedom?”
I propose that Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological account of the poetic image, despite its somewhat unpromising obscurity, is helpful in addressing environmental thought’s special porousness to striking images. In this short sketch I cannot fully substantiate the claim. I will end, however, with an example where an approach such as Bachelard’s seems to have been fruitful.
Tim Morton is one of the most widely read and exciting environmental writers of recent years. As far as I know has not cited Bachelard as a methodological inspiration, although his work is phenomenological and existential. [Added: One of Morton's earlier books on the representation of the spice trade in Romantc Literature was entitled Poetics of Spice (2006) - making him, it would seem, an explicit Bachelardian after all!]. Morton is so concerned about the potential of sedimented ideas leading us into Sir Benjamin Brodie’s “wilderness of perplexities and errors”, that he elected to drop the term “Nature” altogether. In his book Ecology Without Nature (2007) he explained the problem: “…the idea of nature is getting in the way of properly ecological forms of culture, philosophy, politics, and art.”
The results of Morton’s analysis lead us to strange, perplexing, though ultimately interesting places. Out of this natureless ecology comes a suite of insights on “dark ecology”, an ecology reminding us that we are always already implicated in the ecological. There is no outside from which we get a guilt-free view of the fantastic mess. Deriving also from an ecology developed without a sentimental view of nature comes a fresh analysis of connectedness. Morton revives Muir’s hitching image but this time its resonances are weirder than the oceanic feeling that we are all blissfully in this together. His analysis gives us the queer bestiary of “strange strangers” with which we are stickily intimate, and yet we can never fully get to know. Morton develops this account in The Ecological Thought (2010) which I recommend to you. I am not supposing that this is an adequate summary of Morton’s recent books, but I think that Tim is converging on the idea of resonances and reverberations that Bachelard has written about.
The image, and the imagination, can play a positive role in environmental thinking. Darwin’s image of the “tangled bank” is both a pretty and useful way of thinking about the way in which the organismal profusion developed from a common ancestor. But a misapplied image can be a disaster. Understanding our responsibilities with respect to the image is the work of the future, it is the work that will birth the future.
Walter Libby The Scientific Imagination The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Sep., 1922), pp. 263-270
January 21, 2013
Writing and the World of Tomorrow
by James McGirk
Before we had any idea how dangerous it was to bolt human beings to exploding tubes and launch them into space, when inventions like the lightbulb and airplane and telephone were warping the planet at a ferocious pace and escaping the earth’s gravity well suddenly seemed possible —we imagined that exploring the Universe would be a lot like the famous expeditions we had seen before. Compare Jules Verne or sci-fi serials of the 1950s to Marco Polo’s Travels: worlds squirming with life and adventure, with bizarre wildernesses to traverse, silver cities that gleamed like sunlit crystal, galactic emperors and perfidious foes and glamorous green heartthrobs who wore togas and served slithering banquets and summoned lightning bolts from buttons on their belts.
It seemed natural our future would come to look like this too. Rocketships and sleek shapes seized our imaginations and seeped into our culture. The centerpiece of the 1939 World’s Fair was the Trylon and Perisphere, a 600-foot tall spire that stood beside an enormous sphere while klieg lights roamed the sky. Architects added ringed spines to radio towers, engineers built trains that looked like gleaming bullets; cars became swoopy and streamlined and eventually grew fins. Anything futuristic was swaddled with chrome and extraneous antennae. By day the movie theatres, airports, motels and diners lining the brand new superhighways looked like docking spacecraft, by night their neon blazed until it blotted out the stars.
Literature absorbed and was mutated by this great swell of imagination. The slender prose of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald was replaced with huge tomes and colossal egos who tried to devour all of postwar America and regurgitate it into a single tome. This was the era of Norman Mailer, of Saul Bellow and William Burroughs and John Updike and Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon and Alan Ginsberg. Their work was as larded with glittering things—with extraneous information, details about objects and history and revolution—as the glorious motels and gleaming theatres had been a generation before.
Science fiction writers took even bigger mouthfuls than their highbrow cousins. Writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov wrote space operas that stretched across entire galaxies and sprawled across two, three, even four books at a time.
By the 1970s, the electroplated luster of the future was flaking off. We knew our resources were finite and the glories of technology wouldn’t save us from losing wars or being scorched by an atomic bomb. Architects and industrial designers began to favor forms that were more functional than fanciful. Motel owners figured guests would feel more reassured by a national franchise than an unidentified flying object hovering over their beds. Literary fiction became grittier and more introspective. It pared down until individual sentences were pulling stories along: Raymond Carver, Martin Amis, Barry Hannah. American techno-culture seemed tasteless and plastic. Writers like Toni Morrison, V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Losa brought stories from other cultures to readers, and to many of us, these neglected voices were as rich and strange as Marco Polo’s Travels.
Science fiction sought out the underworld. A movement of writers called “Cyberpunk” plundered from hard-boiled detective fiction. William Gibson, who coined the word “cyberspace” in his 1983 novel Neuromancer, published one of the first Cyberpunk stories in 1981, when he wrote the “Gernsback Continuum.” It’s a marvelous illustration how technology, imagination and fiction are warped by one another. Gibson called them semiotic ghosts.
The “Gernsback Continuum” is told from a photographer’s point of view. The unnamed narrator is a mercenary of a sort, a little jaded, a good photographer but not the best of them, an updated version of the grizzled private investigators you might encounter in a Dashiell Hammet or a Raymond Chandler story. He takes on an assignment from a femme fatale, who asks him to photograph the crumbling vestiges of America’s “raygun Gothic” culture. Gradually, he succumbs to the illusion. Gibson’s nameless narrator begins seeing fragments of a past that never was: Flying wedges pester him in the desert. Lonely highways bloat into 80-lane super-freeways. He takes a diet pill, crashes, and wakes to find a titanic city floating above him and… Them: a couple, a male and a female, Aryan supermen both, a pair of inhabitants of the future that wasn’t. He overhears the male lecturing the female and “his words were as bright and hollow as the pitch in some Chamber of Commerce brochure, and I knew that he believed them absolutely.” The female listens politely to her male and then reminds him to take his food pill.
Gibson was thumbing his nose at classic science fiction. Seen beside modern technology, the twelve-engined flying wings and silver gyrocopters were preposterous—“it had all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda” drawls the narrator—and the perfect pair was every bit as empowered and boring as the Rocket Age heroes Gibson’s everyman photographer was replacing. But as much as Gibson may be sneering at Gernsback’s classic aesthetic, he acknowledges that it’s a continuum, a seamless shift from one thing to another; that his photographer couldn’t exist without the glorious blondes who came before him. And in the same manner, contemporary writing grew from soil rich in the residue of its clanking, exuberant, Diesel Age predecessors.
The Internet is a mirror of the Universe, albeit an imperfect one. It’s a richer, happier, more transparent reflection of the real world. And though there is a background noise of snickering and threats and occasional yuckiness, those can’t hurt you (in the U.S.A.). The Internet is all about treats: factoids, pneumatic sexpots prancing at your command, mewling kittens, pithy sayings, and other pretty, shiny, glossy things, all available at your fingertips, all delivered from a deliciously designed device through convenient app.
If the mechanical dreams of the Diesel Age were exuberant and colossal, those of the Internet Age are effervescent and charming. I remember the feeling of logging into the Internet for the first time, of making a million weird discoveries as I traversed space and time from behind a monochrome display. It felt glowy and golden. The way swiping an iPhone does the first time you try. The chirping, friendly infrastructure of the Internet has been scorched into our brains. Our literature has been extruded through its cheerful strictures. As mundane as our glowing Apples may seem to us now, they have changed the way we think and the way we write.
Literature will slide back on the continuum. The next wave of novels will slough the Internet. They will be dark, bitter and angry: like biting down on a hunk of coal. But a trace of the Internet’s tinsel will remain.
January 07, 2013
Quentin Tarantino - Author of the Gatsby
[Spoiler alert: I discuss in some detail the plot outcome of The Great Gatsby and, for that matter, of Django Unchained]
I do not mean to suggest here that Quentin Tarantino set out in Django Unchained to revive in any sort of deliberate way the characters and themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The differences between these two projects are more substantial than their commonalities. One, after all, is a movie and the other is a novel. More importantly, Tarantino is self-consciously a genre re-configuring story-teller, whereas Fitzgerald wanted in The Great Gatsby to write something new using the form of the traditional novel. The Great Gatsby is that most brazen of beasts The Great American Novel. That being said both, in fact, are distinctively American works. Moreover, in both works the action is driven by a hero’s bid to rescue a gal. Both play games with time, though quite different ones as I will elaborate below. In both, injustices are addressed and resolved with varying degrees of success. To my mind the commonalities of revision, rescue, and redress, though these are perhaps the stuff of all great works, are so distinctively rendered in Django Unchained that one can say that Tarantino has re-authored Gatsby.
Many years ago Bono identified, for the edification of an Irish audience, the differences between Irish and American sensibilities. He was appearing on Gay Byrne’s The Late Late Show — as close as one could get in those times to addressing the Irish nation. He was asked to account for U2’s growing infatuation with the United States. As best as I can remember it now Bono reported that when a man gets wealthy in the US and he builds that large mansion on a hill his neighbors look up and say: “Some day I am going to be that guy.” However, when a man builds that house on the hill in Ireland, his neighbors point up and say: “Some day I am going to get that bastard.” This was around the time that U2 were recreating themselves in anticipation of the release of the The Joshua Tree. One supposes they hoped for mansions and accolades. The interview occurred several years after I first read The Great Gatsby as a Dublin teenager. Despite my infatuation with American literature at the time Gatsby struck me as a dud. It was not so-much that a self-made man was uninteresting to me rather I did not even recognize this sort of hero. Gatsby was Bono’s bastard on the hill.
My second reading of the novel was shortly after I got married in the late 1980s. Not only was The Great Gatsby a favorite novel of my wife’s but she grew up in Queens, NY where we were living at the time and she brought me out to see those Long Island mansions. Naturally, a smitten young man rereads in such circumstances. This second, fairly attentive reading, was more successful. The setting of the novel, and the way in which this geography reinforced the class distinctions among the characters impressed me (my wife and I were living closer to Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes — Flushing Meadows, Queens — than to East Egg). As a nature-oriented fellow I was also pleased to notice the scattered but quite crucial references to nature throughout the novel.Grass, for instance, is developed as a minor character in the story (being mentioned in one way or anther over forty times in the novel). For example, we meet Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s lawn before we meet them. “The lawn”, Nick Carraway, our narrator, observed “started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sundials and brick walks and burning gardens…” Yes, the language is so pretty. Though the novel appealed to me on that reading, yet I still thought it more a gorgeous assemblage of themes yoking together a small set of yarns about inconsequential snobs, rather than a unified novel.
This Christmas break on the occasion of my younger son being compelled to read The Great Gatsby for school I took up the novel for a third time. It had been a quarter century since my last reading. That newly wed man of twenty-five years before may have been the more romantic but the middle-aged man I now am, is apparently more easily overwhelmed. It was as if I was reading another book, discovering in it depths I had gravely overlooked before. It may also have helped my recent reading of Gatsby that I have lived in the US for most of the intervening years. I share, at this point, an immigrant’s enthusiasm for the American project.
Gatsby is compelling not because he is a self-made man, a man about whom swirl rumor and innuendo, a man of gigantic wealth, a creator of fabulous entertainments, but rather he compels because of the sympathetic reasons that prompted his self-creation in the first place. You will recall that Gatsby intended with his riches to woo back Daisy Buchanan. Daisy (again with the lawn references!) is wed to the hulking and extravagantly well-positioned Tom Buchanan. How did we know that Tom is unworthy of her? Because he prattles on about a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires, claiming it to be “a fine book, and everyone ought to read it.” He goes on: “The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged.” In an early scene of New York revelry Tom smacks Myrtle (yes another plant) Wilson, his ill-fated girlfriend, and breaks her nose. It’s not the worst violence of the book, but is the most boorish. James Gatz, Gatsby’s birth name, had courted Daisy in Louisville before the Great War but being penniless was an unsuccessful suitor. It was in order to be worthy of her that Gatsby recreated himself, doing so, it is hinted, by indecorous means. And it looked as if for a moment he had succeeded — when Daisy and Gatsby convene with Nick Carraway’s assistance, Daisy wept “stormily” over Gatsby’s fantastic array of shirts saying “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”
Readers have puzzled over the years about how Daisy deserved such enduring devotion from Gatsby. It’s is clear though that in some ways Daisy had little to do with it. What seems important really was the metamorphosis that occurred in Gatsby’s soul when those five years earlier he decided to bestow his affections on Daisy on a moonlit night in Louisville. Fitzgerald describes the transfiguration of Gatsby in that earlier moment in ecstatic tones. Gatsby, he wrote “knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” Gatsby thus become flesh, and it is the fate of all flesh to perish and die. Five years after the God-aspiring Gatsby became mortal — this being the action of the novel — Gatsby plans the almost god-like erasure of time. He and Daisy are to be restored to that glorious moment. Daisy was to nullify her four years with Tom. She was to declare that she never loved her husband. And though she does make that declaration, and perhaps even believed it for a moment, nevertheless daisies, though feral, belong on the lawn, and thus our Daisy returns to Tom and she betrays Gatsby. The sheer impossibility of Gatsby’s aspiration (and Nick tells him that it is impossible) had doomed Gatsby and he is violently killed.
Now as I was immersed in this third and most engaged reading of Gatsby I went to see Django Unchained as a Christmas evening entertainment. The story follows the fate of Django Freeman from slave to bounty hunter to rescuer of his wife Broomhilda from the plantation owner Calvin Candie. Django gratifying triumphs and the denouement is explosive. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel which received mixed reviews at the time it was published, Quentin Tarantino’s movie has been almost universally hailed as a great work. It currently has an 88% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is of course a controversial film. It is extremely violent, the N-word is deployed with what some regard as an unsavory frequency, and it has sparked debate on who gets the prerogative of making a movie on the topic of vengeance for the history of slavery. The specificity of the story, about slavery, race, vengeance may be of greatest importance, nevertheless, its themes are also universal and this is what I remark on here.
The claim that Django and Gatsby are parallel stories may still seem fanciful. Consider this though: Both Gatsby and Django had to recreate themselves to meet the challenges of their quests. Gatsby is mentored and transformed by the adventurer Dan Cody; Django by the dentist-cum-bounty hunter Dr King Schultz, who rescued him at the beginning of the film. Gatsby became fabulously wealthy mysteriously and almost overnight; Django acquired the expertise of a bounty hunter (including being the sharpest of shooters and possessing horse dressage skills) mysteriously and almost overnight. Gatsby wanted to rescue Daisy from the dastardly white supremacist Tom Buchanan; Django intended rescuing Broomhilda from the monstrous, and amplified racist, Calvin Candie. Gatsby’s legendary Saturday evening parties were merely a facade to get him close to the Buchanan’s East Egg mansion; Django’s ruse of being a Mandingo fighting expert gets him into Candyland, Candie’s plantation mansion. Nick Carraway, our first person narrator, facilitated the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy, Dr King Schultz facilitated the reunion of Django and Broomhilda. Gatsby wanted to go back in time to revisit his perfect moment; Django wants to go back in time to be reunited with his wife. Both works end in the destruction of a mansion. Django flourishingly rides away with Broomhilda from the demolished Candyland, and figuratively so does Carraway our narrator (in lieu of Gatsby). As Carraway describes it: “And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.”
Images of nature play a similar role in both works, though I hold off an a fuller inspection for now. Let me merely note that there is a vegetational sequence in The Great Gatsby that starts in the west (whence came Gatsby and Carraway) that then runs from the trimmed to the unkempt grass lawns of Long Island and ends in a vision of the indigenous pre-settlement state. In Django Unchained it also starts in the ecosystems of the wilder west, to the violent and parkland pastoral of the south. More rugged nature still plays a role here: Schultz and Django pick off the KKK posse from their perch in the wilder vegetation above the scence; the runaway slave d’Artagnan hides up a tree before descending only to be torn apart by dogs.
There is besides a close matching of characters in both stories. Django/Gatsby, Broomhilda/Daisy (both meagerly developed as characters), Calvin Candie/Tom Buchanan, King Schultz/Dan Cody and Nick Carraway. Perhaps one can pair the incompetently hooded KKK with the Gatsby’s sodden revelers. The pairings are not perfect, of course. For instance, in the economy of Tarantino’s film-making Dr Schultz plays a dual role. And though there is no Stephen, Calvin Candie’s house slave, nevertheless Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, plays a role which though not precisely comparable, nonetheless, performs the similar task of triggering the endgame.
For all of this Daisy stays with Tom, whereas Broomhilda rides off with Django. Gatsby dies, Django lives. Since this is the most consequential difference between the two works, why this has to be so bears a little scrutiny. Here is my thumbnail sketch:
Gatsby in the process of materially transforming himself destroys himself — all those shirts are not just for show. Django, however, is magnified and empowered by his transformation (assuming, that is, one approves of the havoc he created). Gatsby chooses mortality, whereas Django is bestowed a god’s capacity for vengeance. Ultimately The Great Gatsby explores the nightmare lurking behind the American dream. Django Unchained starts with that nightmare and responds with a fantasy. Death stalks nightmares, fantasies spawn invulnerability. Fitzgerald sets for himself the task of describing what happens when the goal is full restoration of time, pretending, in other words, that the past never even occurred. Tarantino’s task is the equally complex but seemingly more achievable one of responding when the past is unspeakable.
Both works deal, in a sense, with men — Gatsby, Buchanan and Candie — who builds mansions on the hill. In this sense Bono’s account of the American story might be right. But no one, apparently, likes that guy. Even in the American story we like get those basterds. The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s Great American Movie. Perhaps there is only one great American story. If this is so then it was inevitable that Tarantino rewrote The Great Gatsby.
Many thanks to Oisín and Fiacha Heneghan and Vassia Pavlogianis for comments on earlier drafts - and even if they remain unconvinced, some of their insights have been incorporated into this version. I found Adam Kotsko's review of Django Unchained interesting and helpful, especially his analysis of Django's automatic knowledge (see that here).
A Parched Future: Global Land and Water Grabbing
by Jalees Rehman
“This is the bond of water. We know the rites. A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe.” Frank Herbert - Dune
Land grabbing refers to the large-scale acquisition of comparatively inexpensive agricultural land in foreign countries by foreign governments or corporations. In most cases, the acquired land is located in under-developed countries in Africa, Asia or South America, while the grabbers are investment funds based in Europe, North America and the Middle East. The acquisition can take the form of an outright purchase or a long-term-lease, ranging from 25 to 99 years, that gives the grabbing entity extensive control over the acquired land. Proponents of such large-scale acquisitions have criticized the term “land grabbing’ because it carries the stigma of illegitimacy and conjures up images of colonialism or other forms of unethical land acquisitions that were so common in the not so distant past. They point out that land acquisitions by foreign investors are made in accordance with the local laws and that the investments could create jobs and development opportunities in impoverished countries. However, recent reports suggest that these land acquisitions are indeed “land grabs”. NGOs and not-for profit organizations such as GRAIN, TNI and Oxfam have documented the disastrous consequences of large-scale land acquisitions for the local communities. More often than not, the promised jobs are not created and families that were farming the land for generations are evicted from their ancestral land and lose their livelihood. The money provided to the government by the investors frequently disappears into the coffers of corrupt officials while the evicted farmers receive little or no compensation.
One aspect of land grabbing that has received comparatively little attention is the fact that land grabbing is invariably linked to water grabbing. When the newly acquired land is used for growing crops, it requires some combination of rainwater (referred to as “green water”) and irrigation from freshwater resources (referred to as “blue water”). The amount of required blue water depends on the rainfall in the grabbed land. For example, land that is grabbed in a country with heavy rainfalls, such as Indonesia, may require very little irrigation and tapping of its blue water resources. The link between land grabbing and water grabbing is very obvious in the case of Saudi Arabia, which used to be a major exporter of wheat in the 1990s, when there were few concerns about the country’s water resources. The kingdom provided water at minimal costs to its heavily subsidized farmers, thus resulting in a very inefficient usage of the water. Instead of the global average of using 1,000 tons of water per ton of wheat, Saudi farmers used 3,000 and 6,000 tons of water. Fred Pearce describes the depletion of the Saudi water resources in his book The Land Grabbers:
Saudis thought they had water to waste because, beneath the Arabian sands, lay one of the world’s largest underground reservoirs of water. In the late 1970s, when pumping started, the pores of the sandstone rocks contained around 400 million acre-feet of water, enough to fill Lake Erie. The water had percolated underground during the last ice age, when Arabia was wet. So it was not being replaced. It was fossil water— and like Saudi oil, once it is gone it will be gone for good. And that time is now coming. In recent years, the Saudis have been pumping up the underground reserves of water at a rate of 16 million acre-feet a year. Hydrologists estimate that only a fifth of the reserve remains, and it could be gone before the decade is out.
Saudi Arabia responded to this depletion of its water resources by deciding to gradually phase out all wheat production. Instead of growing wheat in Saudi Arabia, it would import wheat from African farmlands that were leased and operated by Saudi investors. This way, the kingdom could conserve its own water resources while using African water resources for the production of the wheat that would be consumed by Saudis.
The recent study “Global land and water grabbing” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2013) by Maria Rulli and colleagues examined how land grabbing leads to water grabbing and can deplete the water resources of a country. The basic idea is that when the grabbed land is irrigated, the use of freshwater resources reduces the availability of irrigation water for neighboring farmland areas, i.e. the areas that have not been grabbed. This in turn can cause widespread water stress and affect the ability of other farmers to grow crops, ultimately leading to poverty and social unrest. Land grabbing is often shrouded in secrecy since local governments do not want to be perceived as selling off valuable land to foreigners, but some details regarding the size of the land grab are eventually made public. The associated water needs of the investors that grab the land are even less clear and very little is publicly divulged about how the land grabbing will affect the water availability for other farmers. In the case of Sudan, for example, grabbed land is often located on the fertile banks of the Blue Nile and while large-scale commercial farmland is expanding as part of the foreign investments, local farmers are losing access to land and water and gradually becoming dependent on food aid, even though Sudan is a major exporter of food produced by the large-scale farms.
Using the global land grabbing database of GRAIN and the Land Matrix Database, Rulli and colleagues analyzed the extent of land-grabbing and identify the Democratic Republic of Congo (8.05 million hectares), Indonesia (7.14 million hectares), Philippines (5.17 million hectares), Sudan (4.69 million hectares) and Australia (4.65 million hectares) as the five countries in which the most area of land has been grabbed by foreign investors. The total amount of grabbed land in these five countries is 29.7 million hectares, and accounts for nearly 63% of global land grabbing. To put this in perspective, the size of the United Kingdom is 24.4 million hectares.
The researchers calculated the amount of rainfall (green water) on the grabbed land, which is the minimum amount of water that would be grabbed with the acquisition of the land. However, since the grabbed land is also used for agriculture and many crops require additional freshwater irrigation (blue water), the researchers also determined a range of predicted blue water grabbing for land irrigation. For the low end of the blue water grabbing range, the researchers assumed that the land would be irrigated in the same fashion as other agricultural land in the country. On the higher end of the range, the researchers also calculated how much blue water would be grabbed, if the investors irrigated the land in a manner to maximize the agricultural production of the land. This is not an unreasonable assumption, since foreign investors probably do have the financial resources to maximally irrigate the acquired land in a manner that maximizes the return on their investment.
Rulli and colleagues estimated that global land grabbing is associated with the grabbing of 308 billion m3 of green water (i.e. rain water) and an additional grabbing of blue water that can range from 11 billion m3 (current irrigation practices) to 146 billion m3 (maximal irrigation) per year. Again, to put these numbers in perspective, the average daily household consumption of water in the United Kingdom is 150 liters (0.15 m3) per person. This results in a total annual household consumption of 3.5 billion m3 (0.15 m3 X 365 days X 63,181,775 UK population) of water in the UK. Therefore, the total household water consumption in the UK is a fraction of what would be the predicted blue water usage of the grabbed land, even if one were to use very conservative estimates of required irrigation.
The researchers then also list the top 25 countries in which the investors are based that engage in land and water grabbing. They find that about “60% of the total grabbed water is appropriated, through land grabbing, by the United States, United Arab Emirates, India, United Kingdom, Egypt, China, and Israel”. The researchers gloss over the fact that in many cases, land and associated water resources are grabbed by foreign investment groups and not by foreign governments. Just because certain investment funds are based in Singapore, UK or the United Arab Emirates does not mean that these countries are “appropriating” the land or water. In fact, many investment groups that are involved in land grabbing may have multinational investors or investors whose nationality is not disclosed. Nevertheless, there are probably cases in which land and water grabbing are not merely conducted as a form of private investment, but might involve foreign governments. One such example is the above-mentioned case of Saudi Arabia, in which the Saudi government actively encouraged and helped Saudi investors to acquire agricultural land in Africa. While perusing the list of the top 25 countries in which land and water grabbing investors are based, one cannot help but notice that the list contains a number of Middle Eastern countries that are themselves experiencing severe water stress and scarcity, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates or Israel. Transferring their water burden to Africa by acquiring agricultural land would allow them to preserve their own water resources and may indeed by of strategic value to these countries. However, the precise degree of government involvement in these investment decisions often remains unclear.
The paper by Rulli and colleagues is an important reminder of how land grabbing and water grabbing are entwined and that land grabbing could potentially deplete valuable water resources from under-developed countries, especially in Africa, which accounts for more than half of the globally grabbed land. Even villagers that continue to own and farm their own land adjacent to the large-scale farms on grabbed lands could be affected by new forms of water stress, especially if the foreign investors decide to maximally irrigate the acquired land. There are some key limitations to the study, such as the lack of distinction between private foreign investors or foreign governments that are engaged in land grabbing and the fact that all the calculations of blue water grabbing are based on very broad estimates without solid data on how much blue water is actually consumed by the grabbed lands. These numbers may be very difficult to obtain, but should be the focus of future studies in this area.
After reading this study, I have become far more aware of ongoing land and water grabbing. Excessive commodification of our lives was already criticized by Karl Polanyi in 1944 and now that water is also becoming a “fictitious commodity”, we have to be extremely watchful of its consequences. The extent of land grabbing that has already taken place is quite extensive. An interactive map based on the GRAIN database allows us to visualize the areas in the world that are most affected by land grabbing since 2006 as well as where the foreign investors are located. The map shows that in recent years, Pakistan has emerged as one of the prime targets of land grabbing in Asia, while Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania and Ethiopia are major targets of recent land grabbing in Africa. The world economic crisis and the recent food price crisis will likely increase the degree of land grabbing and associated water grabbing. The targets of land grabbing are often countries with fragile economies, widespread poverty and significant malnourishment.
As a global society, we have to ensure that people living in these countries do not suffer as a consequence of land grabbing deals. The recent “Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security” released by the FAO are an important step in the right direction, because they attempt to provide food security for all, even when large-scale land acquisitions occur. However, they do not specify water access and they are, as the title reveals, “voluntary”. It is not clear who will abide by them. Therefore, we also need a complementary approach in which clients of land grabbing investment funds ask the fund managers to abide by the FAO guidelines and that they maximally ensure food security and water access for the general population in grabbed lands. One specific example is that of the American retirement fund TIAA-CREF (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund) which is one of the leading retirement providers for people who work in education, research and medicine. Investment in agriculture and land grabbing appears to be a priority for TIAA-CREF, but American educators or academics that use TIAA-CREF as their retirement fund could use their leverage to ensure socially conscientious investments. Even though land and water grabbing are becoming a major concern, the growing awareness of the problem may also result in solutions that limit the negative impact of land and water grabbing.
Image Credits: Wikimedia - Drought by Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia - The Union of Earth and Water by Rubens
December 10, 2012
There Was No Couch: On Mental Illness and Creativity
by Jalees Rehman
The psychiatrist held the door open for me and my first thought as I entered the room was “Where is the couch?”. Instead of the expected leather couch, I saw a patient lying down on a flat operation table surrounded by monitors, devices, electrodes, and a team of physicians and nurses. The psychiatrist had asked me if I wanted to join him during an “ECT” for a patient with severe depression. It was the first day of my psychiatry rotation at the VA (Veterans Affairs Medical Center) in San Diego, and as a German medical student I was not yet used to the acronymophilia of American physicians. I nodded without admitting that I had no clue what “ECT” stood for, hoping that it would become apparent once I sat down with the psychiatrist and the depressed patient.
I had big expectations for this clinical rotation. German medical schools allow students to perform their clinical rotations during their final year at academic medical centers overseas, and I had been fortunate enough to arrange for a psychiatry rotation in San Diego. The University of California (UCSD) and the VA in San Diego were known for their excellent psychiatry program and there was the added bonus of living in San Diego. Prior to this rotation in 1995, most of my exposure to psychiatry had taken the form of medical school lectures, theoretical textbook knowledge and rather limited exposure to actual psychiatric patients. This may have been part of the reason why I had a rather naïve and romanticized view of psychiatry. I thought that the mental anguish of psychiatric patients would foster their creativity and that they were somehow plunging from one existentialist crisis into another. I was hoping to engage in some witty repartee with the creative patients and that I would learn from their philosophical insights about the actual meaning of life. I imagined that interactions with psychiatric patients would be similar to those that I had seen in Woody Allen’s movies: a neurotic, but intelligent artist or author would be sitting on a leather couch and sharing his dreams and anxieties with his psychiatrist.
I quietly stood in a corner of the ECT room, eavesdropping on the conversations between the psychiatrist, the patient and the other physicians in the room. I gradually began to understand that that “ECT” stood for “Electroconvulsive Therapy”. The patient had severe depression and had failed to respond to multiple antidepressant medications. He would now receive ECT, what was commonly known as electroshock therapy, a measure that was reserved for only very severe cases of refractory mental illness. After the patient was sedated, the psychiatrist initiated the electrical charge that induced a small seizure in the patient. I watched the arms and legs of the patients jerk and shake. Instead of participating in a Woody-Allen-style discussion with a patient, I had ended up in a scene reminiscent of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”, a silent witness to a method that I thought was both antiquated and barbaric. The ECT procedure did not take very long, and we left the room to let the sedation wear off and give the patient some time to rest and recover. As I walked away from the room, I realized that my ridiculously glamorized image of mental illness was already beginning to fall apart on the first day of my rotation.
During the subsequent weeks, I received an eye-opening crash course in psychiatry. I became acquainted with DSM-IV, the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which was the sacred scripture of American psychiatry according to which mental illnesses were diagnosed and classified. I learned ECT was reserved for the most severe cases, and that a typical patient was usually prescribed medications such as anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers or anti-depressants. I was surprised to see that psychoanalysis had gone out of fashion. Depictions of the USA in German popular culture and Hollywood movies had led me to believe that many, if not most, Americans had their own personal psychoanalysts. My psychiatry rotation at the VA took place in the mid 1990s, the boom time for psychoactive medications such as Prozac and the concomitant demise of psychoanalysis.
I found it exceedingly difficult to work with the DSM-IV and to appropriately diagnose patients. The two biggest obstacles I encountered were a) determining cause –effect relationships in mental illness and b) distinguishing between regular human emotions and true mental illness. The DSM-IV criteria for diagnosing a “Major Depressive Episode”, included depressive symptoms such as sadness or guilt which were severe enough to “cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning”. I had seen a number of patients who were very sad and had lost their job, but I could not determine whether the sadness had impaired their “occupational functioning” or whether they had first lost their job and this had in turn caused profound sadness. Any determination of causality was based on the self-report of patients, and their memories of event sequences were highly subjective.
The distinction between “regular” human emotions and mental illness was another challenge for me and the criteria in the DSM-IV manual seemed so broad that what I would have considered “sadness” was now being labeled as a Major Depression. A number of patients that I saw had severe mental illnesses such as depression, a condition so disabling that they could hardly eat, sleep or work. The patient who had undergone ECT on my first day belonged to that category. However, the majority of patients exhibited only some impairment in their sleep or eating patterns and experienced a degree of sadness or anxiety that I had seen in myself or my friends. I had considered transient episodes of anxiety or unhappiness as part of the spectrum of human emotional experience. The problem I saw with the patients in my psychiatry rotation was these patients were not only being labeled with a diagnosis such as “Major Depression”, but were then prescribed antidepressant medications without any clear plan to ever take them off the medications. By coincidence, that year I met the forensic psychiatrist Ansar Haroun, who was also on faculty at UCSD and was able to help me with my concerns. Due to his extensive work in the court system and his rigorous analysis of mental states for legal proceedings, Haroun was an expert on causality in psychiatry as well the definition of what constitutes a truly pathological mental state.
Regarding the issue of causality, Haroun explained to me the complexity of the mind and mental states makes it extremely difficult to clearly define cause and effect relationships in psychiatry. In infectious diseases, for example, specific bacteria can be identified by laboratory tests as causes of a fever. The fever normally does not precede the bacterial infection nor does it cause the bacterial infection. The diagnosis of mental illnesses, on the other hand, rests on subjective assessments of patients and is further complicated by the fact that there are no clearly defined biological causes or even objective markers of most mental illnesses. Psychiatric diagnoses are therefore often based on patterns of symptoms and a presumed causality. If a patient exhibits symptoms of a depressed mood and has also lost his or her job during that same time period, psychiatrists then have to diagnose whether the depression was the cause of losing the job or whether the job loss caused depressive symptoms. In my limited experience with psychiatry and the many discussions I have had with practicing psychiatrists, it appears that the leeway given to psychiatrists to assess cause-effect relationships may result in an over-diagnosis of mental illnesses or an over-estimation of their impact.
I also learnt from Haroun that the question of how to address the distinction between the spectrum of “regular” human emotions and actual mental illness had resulted in a very active debate in the field of psychiatry. Haroun directed me towards the writings of Tom Szasz, who was a brilliant psychiatrist but also a critic of psychiatry, repeatedly pointing out the limited scientific evidence for diagnoses of mental illness. Szasz’ book “The Myth of Mental Illness” was first published in 1960 and challenged the foundations of modern psychiatry. One of his core criticisms of psychiatry was that his colleagues had begun to over-diagnose mental illnesses by blurring the boundaries between everyday emotions and true diseases. Every dis-ease (discomfort) was being turned into a disease that required a therapy. The reasons for this overreach by psychiatry were manifold, ranging from society and the state trying to regulate what was acceptable or normal behavior to psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies that would benefit financially from the over-diagnosis of mental illness. An excellent overview of his essays can be found in his book “The Medicalization of Everyday Life”. Even though Tom Szasz passed away earlier this year, psychiatrists and researchers are now increasingly voicing their concerns about the direction that modern psychiatry has taken. Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield, for example, have recently published “The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder” and “All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry's Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders”. Unlike Szasz who even went as far as denying the existence of mental illness, Horowitz and Wakefield have taken a more nuanced approach. They accept the existence of true mental illnesses, admit these illnesses can be disabling and acknowledge the patients who are afflicted by mental illnesses do require psychiatric treatment. However, Horowitz and Wakefield criticize the massive over-diagnosis of mental illness and point out the need to distinguish true mental illnesses from normal sadness and anxiety.
Before I started my psychiatry rotation in San Diego, I had been convinced that mental illness fostered creativity. I had never really studied the question in much detail, but there were constant references in popular culture, movies, books and TV shows to the creative minds of patients with mental illness. The supposed link between mental illness and creativity was so engrained in my mind that the word “psychotic” automatically evoked images of van Gogh’s paintings and other geniuses whose creative minds were fueled by the bizarreness of their thoughts. Once I began seeing psychiatric patients who truly suffered from severe disabling mental illnesses, it became very difficult for me to maintain this romanticized view of mental illness. People who truly suffered from severe depression had difficulties even getting out of bed, getting dressed and meeting their basic needs. It was difficult to envision someone suffering from such a disabling condition to be able to write large volumes of poetry or to analyze the data from ground-breaking experiments. The brilliant book “Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes” by Albert Rothenberg helped me understand that the supposed link between creativity and mental illness was primarily based on myths, anecdotes and a selection bias in which the creative accomplishments of patients with mental illness were glorified and attributed to the illness itself. Geniuses who suffered from schizophrenia or depression were not creative because of their mental illness but in spite of their mental illness.
I began to realize that the over-diagnosis of mental illness and the departure of causality that had become characteristic for contemporary psychiatry also helped foster the myth that mental illness enhances creativity. Many beautiful pieces of literature or art can be inspired by emotional states such as the sadness of unrequited love or the death of a loved one. Creativity is often a response to a state of discomfort or dis-ease, an attempt to seek out comfort. However, if definitions of mental illness are broadened to the extent that nearly every such dis-ease is considered a disease, one can easily fall into the trap of believing that mental illness indeed begets creativity. In respect to establishing causality, Rothenberg found, contrary to the prevailing myth, mental illness was actually a disabling condition that prevented creative minds from completing their artistic or scientific tasks. A few years ago, I came across “Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment, and the Creative Process” a collection of essays written by poets who suffer from mental illness. The personal accounts of most poets suggest that their mental illnesses did not help them write their poetry, but actually acted as major hindrances. It was only when their illness was adequately treated and they were in a state of remission that they were able to write poems. A recent comprehensive analysis of studies that attempt to link creativity and mental illness can be found in the excellent textbook “Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation” by Keith Sawyer, who concludes that there is no scientific evidence for the claim that mental illness promotes creativity. He also points to a possible origin of this myth:
The mental illness myth is based in cultural conceptions of creativity that date from the Romantic era, as a pure expression of inner inspiration, an isolated genius, unconstrained by reason and convention.
I assumed that the myth had finally been laid to rest, but, to my surprise I came across the headline Creativity 'closely entwined with mental illness' on the BBC website in October 2012. The BBC story was referring to the large-scale Swedish study “Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-Year prospective total population study” by Simon Kyaga and his colleagues at the Karolinska Institute, published online in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. The BBC news report stated “Creativity is often part of a mental illness, with writers particularly susceptible, according to a study of more than a million people” and continued:
Lead researcher Dr Simon Kyaga said the findings suggested disorders should be viewed in a new light and that certain traits might be beneficial or desirable.
For example, the restrictive and intense interests of someone with autism and the manic drive of a person with bipolar disorder might provide the necessary focus and determination for genius and creativity.
Similarly, the disordered thoughts associated with schizophrenia might spark the all-important originality element of a masterpiece.
These statements went against nearly all the recent scientific literature on the supposed link between creativity and mental illness and once again rehashed the tired, romanticized myth of the mentally ill genius. I was puzzled by these claims and decided to read the original paper. There was the additional benefit of learning more about the mental health of Swedes, because my wife is a Swedish-American. It never hurts to know more about the mental health or the creative potential of one’s spouse.
Kyaga’s study did not measure creativity itself, but merely assessed correlations between self-reported “creative professions” and the diagnoses of mental illness in the Swedish population. Creative professions included scientific professions (primarily scientists and university faculty members) as well as artistic professions such as visual artists, authors, dancers and musicians. The deeply flawed assumption of the study was that if an individual has a “creative profession”, he or she has a higher likelihood of being a creative person. Accountants were used as a “control”, implying that being an accountant does not involve much creativity. This may hold true for Sweden, but the creativity of accountants in the USA has been demonstrated by the recent plethora of financial scandals. The size of the Kyaga study was quite impressive, involving over one million patients and collecting data on the relatives of patients. The fact that Sweden has a total population of about 9.5 million and that more than one million of its adult citizens are registered in a national database as having at least one mental illness is both remarkable and worrisome.
The main outcome was the likelihood that patients with certain mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia or anxiety disorders were engaged in a “creative profession”. The results of the study directly contradicted the BBC hyperbole:
We found no positive association between psychopathology and overall creative professions except for bipolar disorder. Rather, individuals holding creative professions had a significantly reduced likelihood of being diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD, or of committing suicide.
Not only did the authors fail to find a positive correlation between creative professions and mental illnesses (with the exception of bipolar disorder), they actually found the opposite of what they had suspected: Patients with mental illnesses were less likely to engage in a creative profession.
Their findings do not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the scientific literature on this topic. After all, the disabling features of mental illness make it very difficult to maintain a creative profession. Kyaga and colleagues also presented a contrived subgroup analysis, to test whether there was any group within the “creative professions” that showed a positive correlation with mental illness. It appears contrived, because they only break down the artistic professions, but did not perform a similar analysis for the scientific professions. Among all these subgroup analyses, the researchers found a positive correlation between the self-reported profession ‘author’ and a number of mental illnesses. However, they also found that other artistic professions did not show such a positive correlation.
How the results of this study gave rise to the blatant misinterpretation reported by the BBC that “the disordered thoughts associated with schizophrenia might spark the all-important originality element of a masterpiece” is a mystery in itself. It shows the power of the myth of the mad genius and how myths and convictions can tempt us to misinterpret data in a way that maintains the mythic narrative. The myth may also be an important component in the attempt to medicalize everyday emotions. The notion that mental illness fosters creativity could make the diagnosis more palatable. You may be mentally ill, but don’t worry, because it might inspire you to paint like van Gogh or write poems like Sylvia Plath.
A study of the prevalence of mental illness published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2005 estimated that roughly half of all Americans will have been diagnosed with a mental illness by time they reach the age of 75. This estimate was based on the DSM-IV criteria for mental illness, but the newer DSM-V manual will be released in 2013 and is likely to further expand the diagnosis of mental illness. The DSM-IV criteria had made allowance for bereavement to avoid diagnosing people who were profoundly sad after the loss of a loved one with the mental illness depression. This bereavement exemption will likely be removed from the new DSM-V criteria so that the diagnosis of major depression can be used even during the grieving period. The small group of patients who are afflicted with disabling mental illness do not find their suffering to be glamorous. There is a large number of patients who are experiencing normal sadness or anxiety and end up being inappropriately diagnosed with mental illness using broad and lax criteria of what constitutes an illness. Are these patients comforted by romanticized myths about mental illness? The continuing over-reach of psychiatry in its attempt to medicalize emotions, supported by the pharmaceutical industry that reaps large profits from this over-reach, should be of great concern to all of society. We need to wade through the fog of pseudoscience and myths to consider the difference between dis-ease and disease and the cost of medicalizing human emotions.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain ECT machine (1960s) by Nasko and Self-Portait of van Gogh.
October 15, 2012
Love and Other Catastrophes: Tolstoy’s Systems Theory of Love
From my book in progress Fields of Love: Themes of Romance and Agricultural Reform in the Work of Leo Tolstoy (this volume is not yet under contract).
Leo Tolstoy started Anna Karenina, arguably his finest novel, with a hypothesis. “Happy families”, he conjectured, “are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is the first general systems theory of love. Tolstoy investigated his thesis by means of a set of rather elaborate case studies: principally those of the troubled marriage of Stiva and Dolly Oblonsky, the crumbling marriage of Count Alexei and Anna Karenin (Oblonsky’s sister), the ill-fated romance of Anna Karenin and Count Alexei Vronsky, and starting the cycle over, the courtship and marriage of Konstantin Levin and Kitty Shcherbatskaya. My task here is to translate Anna Karenina from this series of informative but ultimately idiosyncratic case studies into a more precisely formulated theory of love, one that might be helpful to any one of us in navigating the vicissitudes of love.
The novel starts with consternation in the Oblonsky household. Stiva’s dalliance with the French governess (Mademoiselle Roland of the roguish black eyes and that smile!) has been discovered and Dolly wants him out of the house. Assuming that his wife was aware and had turned a blind eye to his shenanigans, Oblonsky, despite his feelings of guilt, concludes that an injustice is being perpetrated on him. The upset in the home is precipitous, coming as it does somewhat out of the blue. A situation deemed tolerable before is tolerated no longer; a full-blown crisis has emerged. Those forces that had held the family together function no longer and Stiva is propelled out the door.
Stiva is everyman. Likable, thoroughly average: his newspaper, by way of illustration, is Liberal but not extreme. He is not however a self-deceptive fellow. The incompatibility of his corporeal needs and his obligation to family consigns him to a life of deception and lies that run contrary to his generally open and affable nature. His wife is no longer attractive to him and he is not yet prepared to retire to a life without frolics. He will fornicate again one suspects.
Dolly is everywoman, though she is less mitigatingly described than her husband, at least in the opening scenes. Her once lustrous hair is knotted into thin plaits. Her face is gaunt. On the morning when we join them Dolly receives her husband in her chambers from which he had been expelled. It is but a few days after the discovery of his indiscretion. He weeps, she spurns. “Your tears,” she exclaimed, “are water.” There is apparently no turning back. So seemingly small a catastrophe – after all, the tryst with the smiling Mlle Roland was by no means Stiva’s first infidelity – has sundered the mechanism that had previously bound their home together.
Let us, for the purposes of theory-making, call the Oblonsky family a system. We will simply define a system as a set of elements that have a pattern of interrelations.The Oblonsky family consists of Stiva, Dolly, their six children, Tanya, Grisha, Alesha, Masha, Nikolenka, and Lily, their governess (an English one is in place by the time we meet them), a nurse, servants and so forth. The interactions between elements within this system are generally more frequent and intense than are those, on average, between them and elements found in adjacent systems. Family members may well have all sorts of commerce with the outside world; nevertheless, they primarily deal with one other. The borders of a family are more comprehensively delineated by family-member interaction strength than they ever are by the very walls of the house that physically contains them.
Complex adaptive systems are a special form of system that can adapt, learn or evolve. They oftentimes are characterized as maintaining internal models gleaned from data on their environment that may be put to use in adapting the system to the future contingencies. In evolutionary systems this internal map is the genome. In the case of families it is the family self-description: their story, how they members see their history that helps them cope with change while holding certain core values constant. We can see why Stiva’s dalliance may be dissolutive for the family. Dolly does not see their story the way she did before and can no longer maintain the sham.
Complex systems supposedly self-organize in a manner that results in the emergence of properties, typically adaptive ones, that are not readily found by inspecting the properties of individual elements. In the case of water, for example, properties of flow emerge that might not be expected from a compounding of one part hydrogen, two parts oxygen; in the case of families what emerges is a type of domestic felicity that is demonstrably good for the physical and mental health of all family members. Some of you may disincline to accept emergence as a forceful challenge to reductionism. Perhaps if one just knew enough about hydrogen and oxygen we’d predict that ice floats and that humans can daintily pirouette on it. However, it is undoubtedly convenient to inspect a system at the organizational level where the phenomena of interest to us are most conspicuously expressed.
A characteristic of families is that they stick around. Even the shitty ones. Men and women may clamor and fret to find life partners – there are apparently industries based upon facilitating this endeavor. And sure enough some are sundered very rapidly. But most families do not fall apart, at least not immediately. The endurance of coupled humans can be attributed to the set of homeostatic feedbacks that develop to stabilize them. The uxoriousness of men, the doting of women, the clandestineness of their intimacies, the inextricability of their shared tasks, the loftiness of their originary vows, and the damp conjugations of the bedroom: all helming the established couple along the straight and narrow. And when the satisfactions have stopped, heedfulness of the pocketbook, solicitude for the kids and maybe even the steely comforts of a dependable foe can keep the relationship on the tracks even as the furnace of love sputters out. Of course, in the worst circumstances unhappy families are maintained by unspeakable acts being perpetrated upon those who dare not speak of them.
When Stiva weeps and asks for forgiveness, he is attempting in systems terms to restore a local equilibrium. But the old homeostatic rules are no longer in play. Stiva looks at Dolly and sees her hatred. Dolly looks at Stiva and sees pity for her in his eyes and hates him all the more. Reflecting on the state of affairs later to Anna Karenina, her sister-in-law, Dolly reported it was awful that her heart has “turned”. “Instead of love and tenderness,” she reported, “I have nothing but hatred for him; yes hatred. I could kill him.”
Feedback within the system now pushes them apart. They have, in other words, passed a critical threshold and, to use the full lexicon of systems thought, they have now entered a new regime, a new stable state. The route back to family accord, if it is possible at all, will be no simple retracing of those steps that tipped them over the edge. Forgiveness calls in such circumstances for strenuous intervention. Before talking of reconciliation though, let us examine a second of Tolstoy’s case studies. This time we examine love blossoming rather than witnessing it wilt about the family stem.
Anna Karenina is famously a novel of two halves. In the eyes if its critics these two halves were never fully united. It is the tale of the fall of Anna and the coming to romantic maturity of Levin. The case of Dolly and Stiva is merely the bunny hop of this monumental tale, preparatory to the grander themes of intense love, intense betrayal, and death; death which alone suffices without adjectives. Though we will say a little more about Anna in a moment, I present a quick précis of Levin’s story before examining those soft explosions that bring people together.
Levin is in love with Kitty, Dolly’s younger sister. At the start of the novel Levin is in Moscow to court her. He learns that she is at the Zoological Garden skating, and off Levin goes. He witnesses a youth performing a new trick on the ice, attempts it, loses his balance ever so slightly, rights himself, laughs! Kitty is charmed. Kitty has another partner in mind though, namely Alexei Vronsky, a dashing military man. So when Levin proposes she informs him that it cannot be. The wounded Levin retreats back to his country estate. The trifling Vronsky, however, does not in fact propose and Kitty goes into a decline as she realizes her mistake.
Levin has been displaying all the symptom of the love-struck mammal. He had selected his special other. For him there could be no one else. Her virtues are incomparable, her flaws indiscernible. Around her he pirouettes. He changes his routine for chance encounters with her. She intrudes upon his thoughts – other than his agricultural schemes, and the peasantry, she is all he can think of. He sizes up the competition. And, when it comes, Kitty’s rejection of him lays him low. When back at his estate he blushes to himself. Later that spring Levin spends a night on a hayrick and during those hours of beautiful contemplation he images for himself a simple life of renunciation. Perhaps he’ll take a peasant wife. His fate, he self-announces, has been decided. And just then as he walks away from the hayrick of fate he glimpses his beloved being whisked along in a four-horsed carriage towards her sister Dolly’s estate. His resolution dissolves, his love for her blazingly returns! The poor boy, as they say, has it bad!
The Oblonsky’s are trapped in their newly disjointed life; Kitty and Levin are pitched into the lover’s hell of vacillation and harsh introspection. But the road to love, and to its repair, is manifestly non-linear. Love and its reconciliation does not slowly unfurl like a flower, it explodes like a mushroom from the nightsoil. Nor will it come about without a little tremor to the system.
It is only fitting that Anna Karenina restores and much as she wrecks. She is about to become embroiled in a set of intrigues that form the core of the novel. Shortly after her arrival by train from St Petersburg, coinciding ominously with the death of a railroad worker under the wheels of a train, Anna is taken back to the Oblonsky household to mediate. This from our systems perspective is a critical moment. Can Anna serve to flip the system back to its former state?
Though Anna’s strategies might appear somewhat lubricious, nonetheless as a demonstration of how an intuitive understanding of human systems can be applied, it is a marvel. Anna softens the forlorn Dolly by doting on the Oblonsky children. The way to a mother’s heart, it seems, is by way of mothering. Once the talk of the disaccord commences, Dolly braces herself preparing to rebuff Anna’s conventional sympathies. Anna assails these homeostatic mechanisms by claiming not to want to either speak for Stiva or even to comfort her. She expresses her sorrow and takes Dolly’s hand. Anna asks Dolly to recount her side of the story. After all it is stories, those most potent of feedback mechanisms, that Anna must change if she wishes to help her brother and reconcile the couple. Dolly provides three stories: the big picture story of the marriage, her perceptions of the recent infidelity, and her assessment of the current situation. Anna to be an effective agent of re-equilibration must work on the ductile element in each, mollify Dolly’s broken heart and furnish a compelling new narrative.
In relating her stories Dolly confesses that it had been unrealistic of her to think that Stiva had never been with another woman. She had been more than innocent. Stiva had not, as many betrothed apparently did, shared information about his amorous life before they wed. For the duration of their eight year marriage Dolly could not even imagine Stiva in the arms of another. What a shock to unlearn this: “Yes, but he has kissed her…” she sobs. In it broad strokes Dolly’s story is naïve and Dolly realizes it. In imagining the infidelity, Dolly supposes, as I assume most do in these circumstances, that she, Dolly, had been the subject of discussion. Dolly declared Stiva incapable of understanding her present situation. She complains, “He’s happy and contented.”
Anna responded on all fronts. Stiva had always regarded his wife as a “divinity”; there had been no infidelity in his heart. Anna shared stories from the early days of the marriage: those times when Stiva would come to Anna “all poetry and loftiness” as he cried and talked of Dolly. There were times, Anna confessed, when she laughed at how much Stiva talked about his wife. As for Dolly imagining her husband now all happy and content, on the contrary he was miserable and stricken by what he had done. And yes above all, Stiva now repented. Anna explained the fundamental nature of adulterous men. Their home, she insisted, is sacred to them and in turn they regarded their lovers with contempt. No, Stiva would not have talked about Dolly to the governess. Anna makes a grand fuss about the sacredness of their commitments. After all, what is the sacredness in marriage other than a powerful tool for homeostasis? Finally, Anna introspects and in imagining herself in similar circumstance, conceded that she would forgive. “I don’t know, I can’t judge…Yes I can […] Yes I can, I can, I can. Yes I could forgive it.” Forgiveness is that voluntary decision to revert a human situation to its former state. It is the equivalent in human affairs of a first order transition in thermodynamics. Forgiveness, that is, is a boiling point in the liquid medium of human soul. By evening Stiva Oblonsky is back, seated at his own dinner table.
The reconciliation of Konstantin Levin and Kitty Shcherbatskaya can be more rapidly told. The couple find themselves alone during a supper party at the Oblonsky’s. Oblonsky, by the way, has by this time taken up with a pretty ballerina. Together again for the first time since his failed proposal, Kitty and Levin find their connection is irresistible, mystical even. In one of the most adorable scenes in literature Levin writes with chalk on the game table the following letters: W, y, a: i, c, n, b; d, y, m, t, o, n? Kitty comprehended. “When you answered: it cannot be, did you mean then or never.” She retorted: T, I, c, n, a, o. “Only then?” asked Levin knowing that the letters meant “Then I could not answer otherwise”. The letters laid side-by-side are like the unzippered strands of DNA, and they inexorably reanneal our couple. A few more scribbled and intuited letters later, Kitty said “Yes”. They were to be married. A critical transition from a state of misery to one of bliss accomplished by the revolutionary heft of a few specks of chalk!
Love begins, love ends; but there is only one system of love. It’s why we write poetry. Anna Karenina, the novel, is a study of those little seismic events that punctuate the landscapes of our romantic affairs. Viewed like this we can see that Anna Karenina is a more unified novel than critics have allowed. Re-inspecting Tolstoy’s hypothesis concerning happy and unhappy families we might conclude that what the statement gains in mnemonic force it loses in accuracy. Less memorably we might recast it as “All happy families, once they are stably established, resemble one another in being maintained against tribulation by a set of feedbacks, whose idiosyncrasies are less relevant than their homeostatic power; each unhappy family when it becomes undone unravels in strikingly non-linear ways.” By way of supplementary test, for example, Tolstoy recounted how Levin’s revelations to Kitty of his manly life before they met (mirroring the journal that Tolstoy showed his betrothed Sophia Andreyevna Behrs) horrifies Kitty, but their cemented love is now resilient enough and she forgives.
Tolstoy’s case studies show more however that the differences between happy and unhappy families. The critical points in relationships, the ones that may determine their unfolding are beginings and endings. And if we want to manage our relationships, and even heal our rifts, it is important to appreciate the degree to which small disruptions can be helpful. This insight may not stun us, of course. We have intuitions of this already. In reference to timid men who disincline to ask girls out on a date people in Ireland at times use the unfortunate expression “you’d have to put a bomb under him” (times of war do violence even to our proverbs!) What Tolstoy shows, however, is that the sage advice of a sister-in-law or a few motes of chalk lettering may be explosion enough.
There is more to be said of course. I have left aside the analysis of Anna’s story. Perhaps a reader might incline towards providing a systems account of that sad tale. I intend when time permits to put a graphical-mechanistic model of Tolstoy’s systems theory of love on my website. Certainly it’ll be up before next Valentine’s Day.
[This essay had its genesis in a conversation with my sixteen year old son, Oisín, in Killarney, Ireland in July 2013. My thanks to him for his cogent remarks.]
October 01, 2012
The Smug Technocrats who will rule Tomorrow
by James McGirk
America should be more open than ever. Women and minorities are no longer excluded from high-earning professions and, if you are willing to take on the debt, a university education is more accessible than ever before. But if anything America is less egalitarian than it once was. The income gap between rich and poor has been growing since the 1970s. More worrying than that, a permanent class system seems to be calcifying into place: people born rich are getting richer, while the poor stay poor. America's elite has found a way to protect and perpetuate itself within what should be an inclusive system.
Sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan has a convincing explanation for how they do it. For his new book, “Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St Paul's School”, he spent a year doing ethnographic research, living among students as a tutor and conducting interviews at the exclusive boarding school in New Hampshire. “Elite schools exclude,” says Mr Khan “but today they frame themselves as doing so on the basis of talent.” Not necessarily money or good breeding, as many assume.
What defines talent is actually an arbitrary thing. When these students apply to university there is little to distinguish top applicants from one another, yet all want the academic boons such as research opportunities, close relationships with professors necessary for a postgraduate education, or the fast-track to elite employers. Attaining the highest board scores and grade point averages is no guarantee of admission, so decisions are instead made on the basis of narrative. A successful applicant must recommend him or herself through extracurricular achievement and other, squishier categories such as character and public service. All the more reason to be groomed at an elite secondary school that can foster students’ hobbies on top of their academic studies.
Elite secondary schools have, of course, been doing this for generations. What Mr Khan noticed is a shift in the attitude of students and teachers at St Paul's to accommodate a more egalitarian atmosphere. Wealth and good breeding is no longer enough, the new elite must create the illusion that they have worked hard for what they have achieved. As Mr Khan explains, “Elites of the past were entitled - building their worlds around the ‘right’ breeding, connections, and culture - new elites develop privilege: a sense of self and a mode of interaction that advantage them.”
The graduates of St. Paul’s have a special advantage over their peers. In a society riddled with gatekeepers, St. Paul’s graduates have refined their ability to network until it has literally become a reflex.
Mr Khan uses Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ease to explain how St. Paul’s grooms its graduates to feel comfortable ingratiating themselves into any social context. Ease suggests learning something so deeply that it becomes embodied, inscribed into the subconscious the way a champion football player need no longer be conscious of his dribbling a soccer ball across the pitch.
Khan demonstrates how both the curriculum and the school’s social events force St. Paul’s students to interact with their social betters and navigate through social hierarchies until it becomes second nature. This happens both formally and informally. Teachers live in student dorms and interact constantly, eventually learning to coexist and feel comfortable in one another’s presence.
At every stage in a student’s education a sense of triumph over adversity is fostered (despite graduation already being a foregone conclusion – barely anyone fails out).
And this sense of triumph extends far beyond the bounds of St. Paul’s. Students perceive one another as being not just above average but world-class, an illusion that is reinforced by a procession of prominent visiting speakers and class trips to prestigious locations. Every St. Paul’s athlete was considered a potential Olympian; Mr Khan’s own pupils assumed he would one day win a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.
Knowledge alone is no longer an important way of projecting status, says Mr Khan. In today’s Google-world it is not tricky to discern the difference between a Louis Vuitton suitcase and a Samsonite. Instead of memorizing facts, at St. Paul’s, the young elite are taught to employ “a kind of radical egalitarianism”, writing papers that draw parallels across disciplines.
People who cannot appreciate both “Jaws” and “Beowulf” seem wilfully narrow to the students at students at St. Paul’s. They do not realize that their ability to slither so effortlessly between disciplines is a consequence of their privileged backgrounds. To the young elite, someone who does not share their radical egalitarian attitude, and as a consequence fails in the meritocrcatic system, chooses to fail.
“Privilege” is a convincing book and like most good sociological arguments it feels intuitive. Mr Khan sought out students, faculty and staff who did not quite fit in and by analysing why, he extrapolates his model. But as powerful as this study is, it wants for a bit of comparison and context. St Paul's is a boarding school - would an elite day school or even another boarding school have a different approach? And though Mr Khan's dissections of race and gender are exquisitely described, it would have been interesting to see comparisons drawn within the racial and gender categories he segments out - why expose the differences between rich and poor white students but not the rich and poor black students, for example.
And how do we know that the elite haven't always been a bit smarmy? There may be an answer soon. Though “Privilege” is limited in scope, Mr Khan's next project is not. Tentatively titled “Elite New York: A Sociological History”, Mr Khan plans to chart a history of elites in New York City, focusing on the Astor family's collection of personal papers, as well as embedding himself into elite culture by attending a series of formal events around New York. It seems Mr Khan is fond of the upper echelons - it all sounds a bit too fun for serious academic work. That said Mr Khan presents a powerful case for how something as democratic as the American system of higher education purports to be can be so deeply unfair to the vast majority of its citizens.
September 14, 2012
Studies offer ‘panoramic view’ of lung cancer
Lung cancer causes more deaths than any other form of cancer. About 1.6 million people worldwide are diagnosed with the disease each year, with fewer than 20% still alive five years later. Now a trio of genome-sequencing studies published this week1–3 is laying the groundwork for more effective personalized treatment of lung cancers, in which patients are matched with therapies that best suit the particular genetic characteristics of their tumours. Two of the latest studies profiled the genomes of tissue samples from 178 patients with lung squamous cell carcinomas1 and 183 with lung adenocarcinomas2, the largest genomic studies so far performed for these diseases. A third study carried out more in-depth analyses of 17 lung tumours to compare the genomes of smokers and patients who had never smoked3.
...The studies reveal new categories of mutations and also show a striking difference between lung cancer in smokers and non-smokers, with smokers’ tumours exhibiting several times the number of mutations as well as different kinds of mutations. Non-smokers were likely to have mutations in genes such as EGFR and ALK, which can already be specifically targeted with existing drugs. Smokers were particularly likely to have damage in genes involved in DNA repair as well as other characteristic mutations. “These genomes are battle-scarred by carcinogen exposure,” says Govindan. In addition, the patterns of mutations found in lung squamous cell carcinoma more closely resemble those seen in squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck than those in other lung cancers. That finding adds further weight to the idea that classifying tumours by their molecular profiles, rather than their sites of origin, will be more effective in picking the right drugs to treat them. Perhaps, for instance, a drug approved for treating breast cancer could be tried in a lung cancer if both carry similar mutations. And mutations implicated in other cancers did show up in the lung cancers.
March 19, 2012
Translit Is Neither New Nor Subversive
by James McGirk
Reviewing Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men in The New York Times, Douglas Coupland proposes, “what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word let’s call it Translit.” Translit reflects “an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once—a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet.” Artists are responding to this, Coupland says, by mashing together time and place, an effect “not unlike watching a TV show that’s simultaneously happening on multiple channels, a story filmed in different eras using differing technologies, but which taken together tell the same story.
As a strategy this is not new. This new genre sounds a lot like Moby Dick, minus the throbbing heartbeat of Captain Ahab pursuing his white whale, or the multi-faceted storytelling of a Thousand-and-One Nights. Every novel is a soup of partially digested hanks of literary matter. A typical chapter is a hybrid of drama, description and transcribed speech. This soupiness is the reason why novels have defied easy categorization into genre since they evolved from the golden triad of Greek drama, tragedy and comedy.
Nailing down a new genre and coining a new term to slot into the canon is harmless fun. What is disturbing about this “Translit,” however, is Coupland's suggestion that it is an effective strategy for dealing with, “interconnectivity across time and space, just as interconnectedness defines the here and now.” The spacey refraction that Coupland is so impressed with is a feint and one that contemporary literature would do well to expose.
“In Translit… a long-form solidity emerges, even though the links between substories can be as ethereal as a snatch of music, a drug-induced sensation, a quality of light on a rock formation. The Translit author assumes the reader has the wits to connect the dots and blend the perfumes.” This seems like a powerful idea, that an author can leave space between stories for something far larger to be imputed, but without the substrate of a central plot, without being rooted in time and place and history, a story becomes as weightless as the aforementioned light beam on a boulder.
Coupland begins his essay by recalling September 11th, remembering the people scurrying around and thinking how little had changed since then besides the number of gadgets being carried. This seems an astounding thing to say. September 11th was not an ahistorical moment at all, certainly not for the 3,000 or so who perished in the rubble or the Afghans slaughtered later that month as American helicopters came thudding across the border, cannons blazing in retaliation. While Coupland’s Vancouver home might seem ahistorical in 2012, for the rest of the world, with Israel and Iran on the brink of war, a world economy on the precipice of total collapse, an Arab world casting off its chains and deciding whether to lurch toward liberal humanism or fundamental Islam, looking at the world and seeing a pellucid place capable of only being rendered in soft pastel seems blind, even arrogant.
What Hari Kunzru and David Mitchell render so well in their books is the thin overlay of information, the radiant byproduct of late capitalism. It makes for an entertaining and flattering read but as a strategy of subversion it is wanting a target. An author who actually stares at the machine in the face, and in the process creates a seriously subversive piece of writing is Helen DeWitt. She does so by firmly rooting her story in contemporary America.
Her latest novel “Lightning Rods” is about Joe, a door-to-door salesman who does what so many of us who live in first-world countries are told to do, he turns his passion into a business. In this case he turns a sexual fantasy of imagining women trying to hide the fact that they are being penetrated from behind into a sexual harassment abatement device and sells it to corporations.
The beauty of DeWitt’s book is how plausible everything is, and how clean everyone’s consciousness remains as they effective convert sex into a bodily function as mundane and as accommodated for in an office environment as defecation. She creates a space that the reader can enter and ideas they can interact with. Anyone who has ever worked in an office or felt strange undertows of subterranean human impulse in an organized environment can relate. It forces the reader to at least consider themselves in relation to the story, as opposed to passively observing and skating over the surface the way someone might read a Translit novel.
“Lightning Rods” shows Joe’s technique being conceived of, experimented with, and sold, experiences the repercussions and prevarications as the device slips further and further from Joe’s fantasy, as users (and the marketplace) adjust to the device and adapt it to their often wildly divergent needs. The book effortlessly exposes how thrown together and half-assed decisions made in an office environment are, how strange it is to work in captivity with fellow homo sapiens, particularly through the medium of corporate bureaucracy and government regulation. The plot is as simple and ruthlessly effective as Moby Dick’s and not only does it tell a hilarious, gripping story with compelling, realistic characters but it inspires just as many refracted bits of brilliance in its readers as Kunzru or Mitchell do. The execution of this one salesman's idea can unpack into a history of the United States or industrialization or even civilization itself.
Coupland says that, “genre-shifting is as fundamental to working with words as is punctuation and knowing the difference between serifs and sans-serifs.” His evidence for how subversive Translit is, is “the fact that China has recently sought to suppress time travel as a creative device for some artists.” Coupland feeds this into an argument for interconnectivity as a model for the modern world, but interconnectivity is not the reason why China banned time travel. Without understanding why China might be threatened by a portrayal of something like a successful Tiananmen Square protest or a what China might be like today without the Great Proletarian Revolution is about as pointlessly reductive as claiming serifs are as important as syntax to working with words.
Interconnectivity is an illusion, a fraud that contemporary literature should go out of its way to expose. The Internet is not a compelling model for literature; a novel is an eight-hour mind meld with another human being, the most obvious evidence that other people think as much and feel as deeply as the reader does. The Internet skates over the surface of the Real, delivers it in safely masticated chunks, the way “Translit” deploys history. For better or worse we own the world we live in now and trying to refract ourselves out of the sprawl of history is to indulge in illusion. Fukuyama’s End of History perished in the flames of the World Trade Center. No need to revisit it in our fiction.
January 16, 2012
On the Areopagitica: Why Milton’s Defence of Free Speech Remains Almost Unsurpassed but Not Secular
by Tauriq Moosa
In 1643, the English Parliament instituted the Licensing Order. This meant pre-publication censorship on all printed writings, including and aiming mostly at newspapers. This followed the abolishing, two years earlier, of the Star Chamber, which according to Kevin Marsh, “had been the monarchy's most potent tool of repression for centuries: a court that held secret sessions, without juries, and produced arbitrary judgments... all to please the king.” This blanket censorship, however, disappeared, requiring Parliament to take some action, thus the Licensing Order. But the next quilt of authority was simply knitted from the frayed threads of the previous.
Arrests, search and seizure of books, book burnings and all other classical depictions of authoritarian hatred were the outcome of this Order. The Stationer’s Company, a guild of booksellers, printers and so on, and established by Queen Mary in 1557, was put in charge of dealing out this Order. Hindsight makes those fires brighter and stupidity greater and fear lesser; curled pages to us invite anger at oppression, but in the eyes of the moralisers, it meant something called order.
The great poet, John Milton, delivered a speech in 1644, called Areopagitica (or, its full title Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England). In it, he made an impassioned plea that rings out today, calling for free thought, speech and reason, for “when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained, that wise men look for.”
His most powerful argument is encapsulated in what is surely one of the most beautiful sentences ever written:
A man may be a heretic in the truth, and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.
Here, Milton cut to the heart of the problem.
Belief is not knowledge, it is merely a belief or a formation of viewpoints on a particular subject. Belief backed by evidence, reason, engagement, self-criticism is the ideal of any thinking person – but we cannot expect all our beliefs to follow suit, though we ought, as much possible, to be testing our beliefs against these forms of self-engagement, since we could be wrong.
Milton highlights that even if a belief be absolutely true – “the planet is not on the back of a tortoise” – it is the basis of that belief that highlights whether one is a heretic or not. If your basis of belief is because some pastor or assembly dictates the belief, then anything can be believed. A pastor could claim that condoms increase the spread/danger of AIDs, an assembly could determine that public spending on stem cells is wrong – but no one should accept that just because the pastor or assembly has so determined.
If a group of people decide that a particular piece of writing violates what they consider appropriate morals, attitudes or views, they will then censor that piece of writing, whether through complete obliteration or, worse, modification tailored to the tastes of the mindful moralisers; its existence is one aspect but it is also the idea’s distribution that concerns censors. An idea or viewpoint’s contrarian view will be locked inside its author’s head, forced to rot, since it is denied the sustenance of fellow minds. This is the goal, in any case, of every form of censorship.
But it doesn't work.
The “heresy” that Milton refers to is not Biblical antagonism; it’s not defying the orders of the ruling religious authority (though obviously that’s the definition we assume). Milton’s heresy is about complete domination of thought.
Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the land, to mark and license it like our broadcloth and our woolpacks.
Milton, however, must not be viewed as a secularist, fighting to untangle religion's root in political decision-making. He was not against the status quo and indeed was simply advocating that if a view or opinion truly is against the status quo, then so be it. This blasphemy however can be discovered afterwards and the books can be done away with then: blasphemy will reveal itself, so should not concern us before since we might end up lumping in legitimate, albeit controversial, inquiries which could benefit us all, among the things we ought not to see or to have been produced in the first place. The Areopagitica is filled with justifications based upon Bibilical mandates to seek out “God’s work”, in order to understand him. His suggestion was that works should not be censored before publication. There will be many failures and offences, he said, “ere the house of God can be built.”
It is this that makes Milton's argument seem strange. After all, Milton has just indicated that one ought not to believe based on an appeal to authority – but is defending free speech because God has said so. However, Milton can overcome this by indicating that the purpose of life is to discover his god’s purpose, which can only be found by constantly engaging with ideas, forcing them apart, seeking what is true. Indeed, the idea of knowledge leading to proper engagement also made it easier to separate good from evil, since, as Milton says, “good and evil… grow up together almost inseparably.” Milton claims that to fight Adam’s curse, humans require better knowledge overall, despite knowledge being the basis of the curse. In order to know good, Milton says, we must know evil.
Therefore the state of man now is, what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer what which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.
There is little wonder then that Milton’s most famous character is his Satan, in the celebrated long poem Paradise Lost. Satan and what he embodied is so potent, Alasdair MacIntyre says, that this character alone “brought Blake over to the devil’s party, and has been seen as the first Whig.” Satan’s motto is, after all, Non Serviam, which, continues MacIntyre, is “not merely a personal revolt against God, but a revolt against the concept of an ordained and unchangeable hierarchy.”
The point being that the fight for individual liberty means the distancing from the security of larger dominance. Security does not necessarily mean safety though: it only means one is not in danger of intrusion - like having one’s views, opinions and therefore life upended by radical alternatives (that, possibly, might be better). The point being that overarching infringement on individuals was done for the purposes of maintaining, as we have seen, “order” (for the common folk - also known as "power" for the rulers). Satan upset this order as set by god by “rebelling” – though this is in itself quite a complicated matter – but forever served as the catalyst for thought against overarching domination – even if, as all domination claims, it is for the individual’s own good because he is part of a larger group. Milton was evidently in two minds about it, but saw the necessity in both areas.
The beauty of the Areopagitica is that it eloquently outlined and began a conversation from the lips of one of our greatest word-users. Even if, as I’ve highlighted, Milton only began a conversation for free thought - and did so within the narrow confines of religious thought - Milton was spurned on not by anti-religious sentiments but by what he perceived to be a twisting of the very religious sentiments which should make humanity curious, knowledgeable and able to engage with varying and new concepts. Milton feared that due to our inherent ignorance, which can only decrease (or increase if we want to take a Socratic stance, given our awareness of our ignorance) with more knowledge, we are not even in the right position to know whether something should be banned or censored:
He who thinks we are to pitch our tent here, and have attained the utmost prospect of reformation that the mortal glass wherein we contemplate can show us, till we come to beatific vision, that man by this very opinion declares that he is yet far short of truth.
How does someone know that we need not attain more knowledge, simply because the idea appears heretical? Milton’s worry, though apt, was driven by the desire to learn more so that humanity could be closer to God. Milton thought therefore opposing knowledge acquisition was to, essentially, oppose humanity's most important mission, since“he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.”
Only God is so infallible, Milton could claim, as to know what is and is not allowed to be considered. Humans, being infallible and ignorant and full of sin, would be going against their very nature and design to deny knowledge, since they would be claiming to have that knowledge anyway: how can we know if it is good or bad unless we know what it is!
The irony should be obvious now: Humanity’s fall was supposedly through its acquisition of knowledge in the Garden. For Milton, the fruit of our failure becomes the seeds of our salvation.
The reason for highlighting Milton’s motivations and justifications is to not allow us to paint a secular portrait of this religious man. This does not discredit his brilliance, talent and genius, nor should it lessen the power of the Areopagitica. But in order to know our history of fighting for freedom of thought and speech, we should consider one of the most important documents to be the Areopagitica. But in so doing, we should be as fully aware of its origin and justifications as possible. As Milton himself tried to do, knowing an origin can help clarify a path for the future.
The Areopagitica remains one of the best documents for freedom ever conceived. But, one that remains central to me, will have to be a little book by another John, published in the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species, called On Liberty.
December 05, 2011
Comics Creator Column #02: Joey Esposito and "Footprints"
by Tauriq Moosa
This week in my Comic Creator Column, I’ll be interviewing and discussing funny book issues with JOEY ESPOSITO. Last week I held a brilliant interview (not because of me but because of her) with the amazing Alex de Campi. You can read that Comics Creator Column #01 here.
If you have the internet – which I think anyone reading this should – and read comics, chances are you know who this gentleman is. He is Comics Editor at one of the most influential entertainment websites, IGN. He is, more importantly I think, writer on the wonderful comic miniseries FOOTPRINTS, with artist Jonathan Moore, published by 215Iink.
As Joey will explain, Footprints is a wonderful noir tale with a great twist. It’s appropriately violent, compelling and well-plotted. What’s wonderful for me, of course, is that it’s not superheroes but it still involves the supernatural. I’m not a fan of the supernatural in general, being what Americans call a ‘skeptic’, but when used appropriately in fictional stories, it can add a wonderful foil to help us consider reality anew. Esposito wrangles in a tale of fraternity and love betrayed, using creatures so unhuman that it’s a testament to his writing that we come to actually care about ugly, humanoid half-men and horrid, impish creatures.
Please support this wonderful talent, with beautiful artwork by Jonathan Moore, by purchasing the series. Or you can use the first link above to purchase the already sold-out-but-coming-back Trade Paperback of the whole, brilliant series.
Joey also provides some great insights for us aspiring writers – though you’ll see he hates that term. I disagree with him, but, well, you can see for yourself that we just agree on what ‘aspiring’ means. On with the interview…
TAURIQ MOOSA: Who the hell are you and how did you get into my inbox! Police!
SOME GUY: My name is Joey Esposito, I’m the writer of the comic FOOTPRINTS, published by 215 Ink! I’m also the Comics Editor at IGN.com and a huge fan of cats.
TM: Fine. I believe you. So, tell us, Joey - Why should people care about comics?
JE: I think the question is “why shouldn’t they”? Comics have everything. Any genre, any art style, infinite possibilities. I think the most common and unfortunate misconception is that comics only consist of capes and tights. There are even people who refuse to read anything BUT capes and tights. If you say “I love comics” and downright refuse to explore beyond superhero comics, I say you’re a liar. If you give it a shot and PREFER capes and tights, that’s different. That’s fine. My point is, much like everyone can find a movie, TV show or album that they love more than any other, the same is true in comics. There’s a comic book for everybody, I don’t care who you are. It’s just a matter of getting your hands on the right one.
TM: How did you get into comics (as a fan)?
JE: I honestly can’t remember a time without comics in my life. My mom collected Superman family comics when she was a kid and so it was just sort of passed down to me, I guess. The first book I remember getting at the store was an Adventures of Superman comic starring Gangbuster, and even as a four or five year old or whatever, it was BADASS. It was primarily Batman and Superman growing up, and then as the 90's boom happened I got more and more into it, usually collecting things at random from lots of different sources. Friends, siblings, whatever. As I got older, I explored a bit and expanded my horizons while narrowing my focus, so to speak.
TM: How did you get into comics (as a creator)?
JE: I guess I’d always been into making comics, even as a kid, tracing Superman pages and things like that. Shit that most kids that love comics do, I guess. But I went to film school, which sort of helped me develop the kind of storyteller I wanted to be. While I was there, I took some comics courses that exposed me to some new things as well as honed in on the storytelling aspects and possibilities of creating comics and telling stories in that way. I just realized that comics is a medium that has absolutely no limits in any regard. There’s nothing you can’t do in comics. So, I focused most of my creative energies on concocting ideas I wanted to tell through comics. Needless to say, my thesis film sucked. By that time I knew it’d make a better comic strip than a movie.
TM: Tell us about Footprints!
(And any projects you are currently doing if you're allowed to)
JE: Footprints is a 4-issue mini-series about Bigfoot as a private detective solving the murder of his brother Yeti. It’s hardboiled noir with elements of horror and comedy too. It’s a lot of fun, plus it has all the cryptids you know and love in brand new ways. Foot’s the private dick, Jersey Devil his hapless sidekick, Chupacabra is the muscle, Nessy is the no fuss sass, and of course there’s a femme fatale that ties the entire tale together. The artist Jonathan Moore and I have been at this book for about a year – self-publishing the first issue and then using Kickstarter to raise the rest of the funds – but it’s awesome to finally hear people’s reactions and everything. The trade is being solicited now in Previews, so go to your local comic book shop and tell them you want the Footprints trade!
As for other stuff, Jonathan and I are working on a graphic novel together next, which I’m writing while he wraps up Footprints. It’s going to be completely different and we’re really excited about it. I’m also working on another series that I’m not really ready to talk about and a bunch of various short comic projects and such. 2012 will be a pretty diverse year for me, I’m excited to say.
TM: How did you meet Mr Moore? What has your experience been as a writer co-ordinating, finding and working with artists? As an amateur myself, this has been the most difficult part.
JE: We met on a creator website called Digital Webbing, when I was looking for an artist for a Zuda pitch (before it went defunct). We started working together on an 8-page pitch, and eventually got to talking about doing another project together, which became Footprints. That was my first real experience going on a hunt for an artist. I’ll be honest, I had to sift through a lot of people. When you post in a forum like that, it’s inevitable you’ll get people that don’t even read your post and just send you some generic inquiry letter and attachments (when you specifically ask them not to) of only pin-ups (when you specifically ask for sequentials). After a day or two of those kind of e-mails, you get to be pretty good and filter through with ease. But then there are the genuine talents – the ones that you save for future reference – and Jonathan was one of those.
It’s a big hurdle for a lot of new writers, but it can be done. Also go to conventions and skip the PR regurgitation of whatever Hollywood panel is happening and really inspect Artist’s Alley. Talk with people, look at their work, exchange information. Everyone is there because they love making art, so it can’t hurt.
TM: Why 215Ink?
JE: First of all, they publish a book called Vic Boone by Shawn Aldridge, which I effing love. I’ve been a fan of that book since it was a Zuda competitor, and so my ulterior motive is just to be able to write a Vic Boone story someday! He and Bigfoot are both private detectives, after all, so maybe their cases will cross paths. But in general, 215 Ink has a commitment to creator-owned comics that I respect. The guys behind the scenes are smart, decent guys. It’s really like a family atmosphere, as cheesy as that sounds. It’s tough being in the small press, both creatively and as a business, but anyone at 215 Ink gives it their all regardless.
TM: 215Ink might also be my first publisher – for a short comic - and I was excited about it because I get to share a publisher with you, Joey. They've also been getting a fair amount of attention from the American indie-comic scene. Their upcoming anthology has been posted on Comic Collab Boards all over the net – with writers seeking artists. Are things looking up for them? What else, aside from Footprints and Vic Boone, would you recommend to comics fans? Please nothing with capes or tights. I ban such talk on my columns.
JE: First, not to misunderstand – capes and tights are awesome! You shouldn’t ban them! Or anything, really! But I digress. 215 Ink has a book called Jesus Hates Zombies that’s a lot of fun for the undead lovers in all of us. Extinct and Black River are also really cool. The great thing about them is that they’ve got such a wide variety – from noir (us!) to kid’s books to crime to superheroes to horror. It’s a nice mix.
TM: What are your plans for the future? Projects, talks, countries to be conquered?
JE: Lots of plans, lots and lots. I’ve got the comics projects I mentioned earlier that are happening for sure in 2012, but of course there are plenty of other things I’m developing at various stages. It’s always really hard for me to stay focused on just one thing. I know most writers won’t recommend doing that, but if I have an idea or something I’ve got to get it down, even if I don’t go back to it for months. At least then I can come back to it and have a fresh opinion of it. A lot of things developed that way for me. Outside of comics, I’m slowly working my way through a novel and some short stories.
TM: What advice do you have for writers?
JE: I guess going off of what I mentioned above, I don’t think there’s any “right” way to write. You should always treat it like a job. Always. You can’t just write when you’re inspired or you feel like it. But don’t reject an idea just because you’re “supposed” to be working on something else. If there’s something that will nag at you unless you get it on paper, then get it out and come back to it later. I think the most valuable thing to me is knowing that you can always revisit something, so if you’re stuck, power through. Once you have the pieces, if they are literally pieces of shit, it’s a hell of a lot easier to clean up.
And also, this should be a given, but it’s surprising how many people give up. Don’t give up. And don’t sell yourself short. For example, I hate seeing people call themselves “an aspiring writer.” That to me screams “I have no confidence in my abilities.” Writers don’t “aspire” to write. They WRITE. They might aspire to get PAID for it, but if you write, you’re a writer as far as I’m concerned.
TM: I had always assumed that what is meant by "aspiring writer" WAS "aspiring professional writer who gets paid". I didn't realise people aspire to JUST write – that sounds quite silly. Now you've got me doubting how to introduce myself. Thanks, Esposito – now I'll have to go back to "Eater of pies and children’s' dreams" under my bio.
I mean, that’s what I get from it. I could be wrong. I guess what I’m talking about is people that say “I’ve got a great idea!” but never take it any further. Take the plunge!
TM: Any specific writers that you are fond of and that inspire you?
JE: There are so many. I’m a huge Nick Hornby fan. To me, there’s nothing more interesting than every day human existence, however tragic or funny or sad as it may be. And I think he’s an author that can really catch that in a bottle, time and again. And Elliott Smith as well. There is so much beauty in his words and music that is really inspiring and important to feel, I think, when you’re dealing with real life. And he’s not a writer, at least not exclusively, but Wes Anderson too. Here’s that real world thing again – he’s able to capture the quirks and utter bizarre situations of life in a really larger than life way. The situations are exceptional but the characters are incredibly real. I love that.
But in terms of comics, there are so many people whose work I love. Grant Morrison, for one, not that I’m in the minority there. I love his ability to look at his stories from this bird’s eye perspective, in individual pieces, and see how it fits even though we might question what the hell he is doing every step of the way. Brian Wood is also a personal favorite, from his work on New York Four to DV8 to Northlanders and everything else. Not only his storytelling, but also his approach to his career. Obviously he’s best known for his creator-owned work like DMZ and Demo and Local and all that. But here he is now, writing a Supernatural mini-series at DC and a Wolverine mini at Marvel. I like that he’s open to those kind of things, and as a result, will have an incredibly diverse list of work. And more recently, Scott Snyder. I’m honored to say that he’s become a friend (and contributed the foreword to the Footprints trade), but his work is educational too. He’s got this storytelling precision that no one else can match right now. Talking with him was a huge help to me on Footprints.
TM: Hornby is amazing. He is a wonderful creator of character and dialogue – that's an excellent person to note for comics writers. With regard to Grant Morrison, I'm the one in the minority. I can't read his comics. I've tried so many of them, but have only loved Joe the Barbarian. Everything else confuses me. Anyway, that's amazing that you got to know Mr Snyder. He IS exceptional. It's great to know bigshots are supporting slightly less-sized shots – that's something I've always loved about this community. I mean I've managed to get interviews with you and Alex de Campi and I'm interviewing Kody frickin' Chamberlain next. Few other creative communities seem to be so encouraging and friendly, putting the stories before egos (though not always).
JE: Yeah, not always, unfortunately. But for the most part, comics is the best industry in that way. It’s not like there’s a whole lot of money in it, so anyone that is here and making comics for a living is doing it out of a love for the medium. And with an industry so small, it’s important for the established guys to pay it forward, to help usher in the next big talents. It’s the only way the industry will continue to thrive.
In terms of being friendly, this is one of the very few mediums of entertainment that everyone is pretty accessible and open to talk. Again, because they love the industry and the work that they do. Whether it’s via e-mail or at a convention or whatever, most people in this business are really easy to talk with. In my experience, anyway.
TM: Do you have a writing process? Do you plan out the whole series, then break it down? Do you work on a specific writing program or just plain old Word?
JE: Generally, I start with a bunch of disconnected notes that range from specific lines of dialog to more general story beats and character descriptions. I jump around a lot, adding to one bit, subtracting from another, etc., until the whole thing is somewhat formed. You know, beginning, middle, end, important characters and their relationships, plot points, emotional beats, all of that. If someone was to read the document at this stage, they’d have no idea what to make of it. But from there I’ll break it down into a more functional outline. From there, I generally write sequentially, or at least I think I do, but then scenes end up changing issues and things like that. And I always, always, always write the dialog of a page before panel descriptions. It helps enormously with pacing your story both in terms of dialog and the visual beats.
I usually do everything in Google Docs to easily share with my collaborators and also to have access to it regardless of what computer I’m on. For Footprints, I made my own formatting template that worked for Jonathan and I. For the things I’m working on now, I moved back to Movie Magic Screenwriter – which I typically used for screenplays, obviously, but it has a comic book template. It just takes formatting out of the equation, letting you worry about more important things. You know, like the story.
TM: The what? Anyway, who's your favourite comics artist?
JE: Jonathan Moore, duh. In all seriousness, Jonathan’s a fantastically diverse artist. He can literally do anything in so many different styles.
But otherwise, I’m a huge fan of Chris Samnee, Gabriel Hardman, Cliff Chiang, Dustin Nguyen, Sean Murphy and Rebekah Isaacs. There are a bunch more, obviously, but those are artists that I’ll pick up any book they are working on – regardless of writer, character, publisher, genre. It doesn’t matter, I’m there.
TM: What is your dream position as a comics creator? Mine is to be writing HELLBLAZER and my own creative project with VERTIGO. Also, to write a graphic novel about Spidie villain CARNAGE and one about Batman's Alfred Pennyworth. Actually, I want any comic that'd be with Dave McKean or Jim Lee... Um, anyway, you were saying?
JE: All I want out of working in comics is to be able to do it and pay my bills while leaving behind a body of work that I’m satisfied with. Oh, and doing so while living away from society in Vermont somewhere. That’s the #1 selling point of being a writer, you can do it from anywhere. That’s a perk. But in comics, I just want to be happy with what I’m putting out. I don’t necessarily need (or want) to write a household name character. Are there characters at Marvel and DC that I’d love to write? Of course. But I just want to be able to tell the stories I want to tell in the medium I love most.
TM: Agreed. And speaking of the industry, do you think the comics medium and/or industry is suffering?
JE: The comics medium is definitely not suffering. The medium, I think, is stronger creatively than it has been in a really long time. The problem comes from the industry part of things, namely distribution.
That system is broken.
And in terms of sales/readership and all of that, yeah it could be doing a lot better. But we could also be doing a lot more, as an industry, to get the mythical “new readers.” DC had a step in the right direction with the relaunch, but it could’ve been taken much further. There are people I meet that discover my line of work and are utterly confused as to how I could be making a living, either at IGN or making comics. They know of Green Lantern and Captain America because hey, they just had movies, but are they still actually making comic books? It’s like a revelation. That SHOULDN’T be a revelation. That indicates something is wrong – we’ve let comics become this niche thing. We should shove it down everybody’s throat.
There needs to be more awareness of comic books themselves – not just their characters – in book stores, TV, online, everywhere. For a start. Marvel did a great thing earlier this year by offering free access to their Marvel Digital Unlimited service when connected to Wi-Fi at Starbucks. That’s a simple, FREE way of getting exposure to people that might not be aware of comics. Things like that are the kinds of initiatives we need. There’s too much preaching to the choir, so to speak. I think it’s possible to please your fans while still accepting new ones. It’s time to try some new things, reach out to new people.
So to answer your question, I think we could be doing better and I think we WILL be eventually, but I think creativity is at an all time high.
Thanks again to Joey for doing this interview. You can read the first issue of Footprints for free online, just have a look at Joey's blog. I seem to be doing well with my interviewees who have provided such incredible insight into their stories, comic writing in general and comics as a whole. As someone completely new to this whole industry and process, I’m incredibly grateful that they’ve taken time out to help inform the rest of us.
Again, please support Joey and the wonderful comic he is creating. I know how tired we all are of the silliness coming from publishers and, as we know, what some of the big publishers do to creators. For those of you who are Diamond fundies, the code you can try is DEC111216. Joey also told me if you go to this TFAW link, you’ll get a 20% discount on the whole damned Graphic Novel.
Next time, I should be catching something called a Kody Chamberlain, which has only been captured on blurred footage in distant northern parts of American woodlands. See you then.
November 28, 2011
by James McGirk
Our brains are filled with the whispering of objects, the shrieking presence of things we lust after or despise or simply want to ignore but can’t for all the noise. It seems impossible to write fiction without addressing it but so little does. Part of this is the nature of the medium. The contemporary novel or short story is a ghostly place, a necropolis where memories are dissected and pinned to the page.
“Anecdotes don't make good stories,” the great Canadian short story writer Alice Munro once told an interviewer, “Generally I dig down underneath them so far that the story that finally comes out is not what people thought their anecdotes were about.”
Writing literary fiction is a bit like tunneling (minus the physical component). You gnaw a room out of the wall of the previous one, scaffold it with description and feed in a few disembodied voices, hoping the histories and hierarchies those voices are quibbling over create enough momentum to propel your reader into the next room. Munro takes this a step further, using the shape of those excavations to back engineer a second, deeper narrative structure from the first.
Hers is a second order of story, ideal for spelunking the complex residue of a lifetime of deep emotion, but one that seems to collapse the realm of the object. Unless an author like Munro is a pure technological determinist, a deep dive into character motivation seems unsuited to describing a world where the collective ache of consumer culture - and being left out of it - might manifest itself in something like the Occupy Wall Street movement. Yet it is not impossible to use intricately rendered characters as a way to roam the realm of material consciousness.
George Saunders writes grotesques, mostly short stories and novellas that echo and amplify our material and marketing obsessed culture. He lets the language of capital and its bureaucratic and corporate brethren intrude into his characters’ consciousnesses. Abominations like advertising jingles and double-speak substitute for the emotions of the disenfranchised nobodies who populate his stories. His characters all but drown in this soup of gibberish, but rather than just let his characters sink, Saunders redeems them, letting odd little bits of mysticism, especially ghosts, seep through his stories and sometimes exact revenge.
“Sea Oak” follows this pattern; it’s a story of a passive but sympathetic father who earns a living as an erotic dancer but is failing at it and about to be fired. His family is saturated with the idiocy of television and consumer culture.
“My sister's baby is Troy. Jade's baby is Mac. They crawl off into the kitchen and Troy gets his finger caught in the heat vent. Min rushes over and starts pulling. "Jesus freaking Christ!" screams Jade. "Watch it! Stop yanking on him and get the freaking Vaseline. You're going to give him a really long arm, man!"”
A shot at redemption comes from beyond the grave when the narrator’s spinster Aunt Bernie dies during a robbery, then returns to life as a macabre version of the ghosts in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, horrifiing the rest of the family into shaping up by giving them a glimpse of the macabre future they faced. Meanwhile Aunt Bernie tries to savoring all of the material pleasures she denied herself while alive, visibly decaying as she does this. It’s an acerbic maximalist style that is almost pungent with politics and agendas, yet for all of his contempt of objects and consumer culture, Saunders acknowledges the power and influence that this strange other realm of objects has in his stories.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that in his stories he tried to “get the feeling of the actual life across, not just to depict life, or criticize it, but to actually make it alive.” He deployed an austere style that he compared to a iceberg: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
Tao Lin has pushed this minimalist ethos of Hemingway's into a sort of rolling laconic rumble, and although some critics view Lin as a sort of anti-literature art project (or self-promoting fraud) there is an undeniable accumulation in his sentences. Take this paragraph of “Relationship Story,” for example, for all its apparent rambling, each word of the following paragraph seemed too crucial to cut:
“In August they visited Michelle’s separated parents in Pittsburgh. Michelle’s father gave Paul his 650-page, self-published memoir. Her mother brought Michelle and Paul to a Chinese restaurant that was one gigantic room, high-ceilinged and low-lit as a natural-history museum. The next night Paul had a fever and Michelle gave him Tylenol Flu and cream-of-broccoli soup and, on her L-shaped sofa, holding each other, they watched a movie about a blind woman hanged for murdering a man who raped her after stealing her life savings. Michelle, who was staying home a few more days, dropped Paul off at the airport the next morning and he stood in line feeling both zombielike and feathery, like he might unidirectionally collapse, for about 30 minutes before learning that his flight was canceled. He called Michelle and she returned and he crawled into the backseat hazily imagining a heavily medicated version of himself holding hands in IKEA with an affectionate Michelle who was watching him sip an interesting, miso-y broth. “Can we go to IKEA?” he said, on his back, eyes closed.”
Tao Lin demonstrated his genius for self-promotion with a series of increasingly sophisticated juxtapositions. He emerged on the scene in 2007 by harassing Gawker, which was then a sort of haven for the New York literati; then having established himself (N.B. this process included winning literary prizes for his poetry collections), Lin began self-publishing novellas with titles like “Shoplifting from American Apparel,” which, of course, was immediately suspected of being a crass attempt at generating attention and sales. Since then, he has continued to play against his critics, naming a book Richard Yates, after the author, which again seemed like a stunt given Yates' reputation as the grandmaster of suburban ennui (i.e. Lin's metier), while writing columns for Vice Magazine and other vulgarities seemingly designed to drive his priggish detractors wild, yet maddeningly relevent to his own literary work.
Lin’s writing works through juxtaposition. There seems to be an enormous space howling around each of Lin’s sentences. The passage above echoes the bleak but prosperous existence of the separated parents, the emptiness of airports and strip malls, the bland food they eat and generic furniture they sit on. He knows his characters the way Hemingway ordains an artful omitter should, but he also knows the power of a brand like Ikea or Tylenol Flu and lets those objects cast their shadows into the text, and just lets them sit there and do their thing. It’s a bit like the poems in Charles Simic The World Doesn’t End or the carefully arranged contents of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, the ones Simic claimed to have been inspired by. Tao Lin's silent juxtapositions seem to be the syntax of the material realm.
Stories are a primitive sort of brain scan. An enormous amount of our neural throughoutput is devoted to the slightly morbid reenactment of old memories and the anticipation of new ones, which is probably the same part of brains that generate fiction. But our stories could also benefit by paying attention to the other media crackling our collective lobes. Computer games have an approach to objects that is almost diametrically opposed to most fiction writing. The acquisition of items, such as a weapon, changes the narrator’s relationship to his or her surroundings. In a story it is the narrative that usually changes the narrator. Research into messy desks and pathological hoarding suggests a link between organizing objects in our environment with memory, and projecting belief systems into our environment. Anyone who has ever dismantled an estate after a death of a loved one can’t help but assemble a sort of narrative from the deceased’s possessions. Which perhaps suggests that the best way to write about objects might be to do what Tim O’Brien did in “The Things They Carried” and list them and let the them speak for themselves.
November 21, 2011
Comics Creator Column #01: Alex de Campi and "Ashes"
by Tauriq Moosa
This will be the first in, so far, a four-part series where I will be (reviewing the work of and) talking to comics creators. My aim is to provide an insight into the medium and the creative process, as well as exclusive interviews with some of the most talented people in the medium. This is mainly aimed at comic writers, rather than artists since that’s what I am (trying to be). In many instances, this is also an obvious plea for you, the readers, to help support this industry via the very creators who are doing the hard-work to produce quality. If you’re fed up with stagnant stories, stale characters and stereotypes (i.e. so much of the superhero genre), then these are the very people we need to be supporting.
The comics industry is a strange beast. Some view it as squatting in-between word-exclusive prose books and full-motion films. Lately, it has been the latter that’s been appropriating comics’ offspring – with Watchmen, Spider-Man, and The Walking Dead all appearing on the silver or television screen. Yet, viewing comics as nestled in-between prose and films is too simplistic a view of the medium, which has, for too long, become entangled in the webs and capes of superheroes. Indeed, many simply equate the comic medium with the superhero genre, which is like equating fiction books with only Dan Brown’s, um, ‘writing’. This does not mean the superhero genre is bad, but that the medium is not limited to one genre. Whether it’s the horror and drama of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Alan Moore’s complex investigation into psychopathy, Jack the Ripper and the history of England in From Hell, Neil Gaiman’s fantastical Sandman, or, my current focus, Alex de Campi’s mature, dystopian and elegantly-narrated Smoke, we have amazing stories wonderfully placed utilising the full extent of sequential art and words.
Comics elicit awe and wonder in the way art as a whole is (sometimes) meant to. It can be as simple as beautiful artwork – open any page of Gaiman and McKean’s Mr Punch to view the genius of Dave McKean – or amazing narration – Jamie Delano’s writing in John Constantine Hellblazer is better than most novels I’ve read. But, truly, it is the mixture of the two that shows what this medium can do. Alan Moore’s work uses everything the page offers to highlight his themes. Whether we are watching the Earth from space, as the narration compares the spinning of the earth to the idea of not having a hold on life (as he did in an issue of Swamp Thing); or whether we are watching a young man read a comic about pirates while, in his reality, men of power try usurp people’s freedom (in Watchmen); Moore and his art team utilise economy of words and illustration to tell powerful stories.
The friction of words and pictures ignites many themes. The trouble is, if not used correctly, it can therefore also completely destroy them.
ALEX DE CAMPI, writer on the Eisner-nominated Smoke, “sat down” with me (i.e. replied to my annoying emails) to discuss our favourite medium, its merits and failings, and provides important insight that we new creators should take into account. We also discussed her new project, Ashes, which has gotten praise from some comics giants, like Mark Waid, Gail Simone, and David ‘Co-Creator of Watchmen’ Gibbons before it's even been completed.
TM: Let’s start at the beginning. Why should people care about comics? Why do you?
ALEX DE CAMPI: Comics are uniquely suited to external narrative: symbolism, subtext, surprise, silence. And with everyone telling us their internal narratives all the time via blogs, twitter, et cetera, it's lovely to have all that shut up and be sitting there staring at some lovely art, on the edge of your seat, wondering what is going to happen next. Comics also suit the way we consume entertainment today -- brief, serialised, exciting. Easy to pick up and become immersed immediately... to get away from whatever the world has weighed you down with, to a brighter, more exciting place. I love comics because I am a very visual person. Stories in my head come with images. Of course I also love films, but a film is a very demanding thing. It is going to tell me exactly how long I can look at things, and how fast I must progress through its narrative. The film is in control of time. In a comic, I am in control of time. I can progress slowly through a lovely or particularly meaningful page... I can go backwards. I can skim forwards to discover, in breathless anticipation, what will happen. Of course the creator can suggest how fast I move through the comic, by making more or fewer panels per page, but these are only suggestions I can ignore as I see fit. The pacing of a comic -- the density of panels, the amount of dialogue, the cliffhanger at each page turn -- is a great and subtle art and when done well lends so much to the drama and suspense of the book. There is so much to love... and as a creator, I love collaborating with an artist. It makes the creation process less lonely, less inward. And when the book is being drawn, it's like a holiday every day when you open your inbox to discover the gift of new pages, that nobody else has seen before -- your word made pictures.
TM: I know exactly that feeling of receiving art from your creative partner; and I’m sure many comics writers are nodding in agreement now. But how did you get into comics as a fan? How did you come to be a creator (published by IDW, etc.)?
ALEX: Back in the day, comics were really cheap and you could buy them in spinner racks in the drugstore. They were a great way of shutting kids up. I was a noisy child so Mom knew if she took me to the drugstore and let me pick out some comics I'd shut up for a while. I liked bad DC fantasy comics (Arion, anyone?) and the X-Men... back when there was only *one* X-men comic.
Then, when I was in my late 20s, I hadn't read comics in years when my first husband brought home a huge stack of 2000ADs and some Vertigo stuff that a friend had left behind when he moved. They were really good... the original LUCIFER mini, some PREACHER, HELLBLAZER... and I got back in to comics. I've always been very visual so I loved how a good writer/artist combo could create moods and subtext by the juxtaposition of words and images.
I'd been a writer all my life but mainly journalism and nonfiction, then I fell so in love with comics I started imagining my own four-colour stories. I actually had a fairly easy time getting published... I wrote up pitches for various stories and sent them off, and got a great number accepted: by IDW, by Tokyopop, by the French publisher Humanoids. I even had a series accepted by Marvel, but it later fell apart. Of course that was back in 2004/2005, when everyone had more money than sense and the boom was going to go on forever.
TM: Is there reason to think either the comic medium or industry is suffering?
ALEX: No. For once, it isn't. There's a large and diverse group of creators; there is more for women than ever before; and via digital, people can access comics even more easily than back in the drugstore spinner-rack days. Of course, the mainstream is still kinda poopy but then mainstream everything is kinda poopy, isn't it? In a prose publishing industry where [Nobel Prize Winner - TM] Snooki's autobiography exists (and has gotten massive marketing support), frankly the fact that the American mainstream comics are by and large misogynistic, culturally blinkered and not kid-friendly, is small beer.
There needs to be a more central place to find a lot of the good independent work, and there need to be more publishers embracing independent genre graphic novel work (which could be as successful as genre fiction like Twilight or Hunger Games, especially among young women) but that will happen. The industry is always 10 years behind the readers, it's in the nature of complex organisations to be stodgy and slow moving.
TM: Your miniseries from IDW, the Eisner-nominated Smoke, is an amazing comic. It's one of the few comics I've reread and my ammo against non-comics readers (what's the term for such people?). "This," I say, showing them comics like Smoke and Mr Punch, "is what makes comics unique and beautiful." Can you tell us about the work you've done in the past?
ALEX: The past for a writer is a land that is difficult to revisit. When I finish a story, it's like locking a pretty, ornamental box and putting it away in an attic. But I shall blow the dust off some old curiosities for you. Smoke was a short series, circa 150 pages, from IDW. It was a sci-noir, a thriller/conspiracy piece about a soldier and a journalist who become caught in a government attempt to game the oil markets. It's out of print from IDW, but you can get all three issues for a total of $2.97 from Comixology. Although looking back on Smoke there are parts of it where I feel I was trying too hard, it's a good summary of what I like to do as a writer -- fast, suspenseful thrillers with not a small amount of the Western to them, and a fair amount of pitch-black humour. Smoke was meant to be a longer series, so there are things at the end of Issue 3 that remain obscure.
I then did two series for Humanoids, a French publisher -- they ran into financial troubles so sadly neither of those series was ever completed. Messiah Complex was a great big space opera starring a teen girl who becomes a political pawn in a very great game; and Chromaland is about a little boy who accidentally is nominated as the hero who will save The Land of the Imagination. Two more series for Tokyopop -- now out of print as they had financial problems and have essentially shut down. This time, the series were for younger readers, and I did get to finish them. Kat & Mouse was a turbocharged Nancy Drew for tweens: two misfit girls solve crimes/problems in their posh east coast private school using SCIENCE. Agent Boo was just insane, it was mental sci-fi for really little kids.
There were also a few other projects that were written but never saw the light of day -- an Amazing Fantasy run for Marvel, a Batman issue for DC, an Escapist story for Dark Horse.
TM: Many are excited to hear about Smoke's sequel, Ashes. What can you tell us about it?
ALEX: Ashes is a behemoth of a thriller novel that picks up five years after Smoke ended. It has the same two lead characters -- the soldier and the journalist -- and a few supporting characters make a re-appearance, but the book is more or less stand alone. What is it? A sprawling, British, psychedelic Western. Our heroes, five years later and considerably the worse for wear, are reunited when the consciousness of a 15 year old boy with a grudge against them, is accidentally uploaded to the internet by the US Military. Complications ensue. The book itself is also quite formally ambitious as well as having an overarching metacommentary/literary theme, but frankly I don't want that to be too noticeable. It's not a work that's going to try to bang you over the head and say "Look! I Am Clever! My Author Has Read Books!", because I hate that. Don't you?
TM: Yeah! [Erases all the long-winded discourses on 17th Century Parisian architecture from latest script]
ALEX: I did steal a good joke from Edward Albee, and there is a nice reference to my favourite film (Cocteau's Orphée) but nothing really obvious.
The book is going to be a beast to draw, though. Thank goodness for Jimmy Broxton and his prodigious artistic talents! We hit it off immediately, and he is really on the same wavelength as me. We sorted out the cover design in about a day... both of us felt a comic book style cover was inappropriate for the book, so we have the red circuit map of death instead. Jimmy has to draw one section of the book like a Winnie the Pooh illustrated story... another in the vein of US illustrator Howard Pyle's King Arthur books. And then there are the sections that require being painted in oil over a text collage. And all of this works. It's for reasons in the story that [these variations] make such sense; you probably won't be overly conscious of our formalist pyrotechnics. Or if you are, we've failed.
In order to provide Jimmy with a minimal subsistence living for the year it will take him to draw the book, and to support a lovely deluxe 1,000-book print run as Kickstarter rewards, we're trying to raise $27k. We're over 50% of the way there, but pledges are slowing, and I fear we won't make it. We're asking people to spend $15 to get the book to them serialised digitally chapter by chapter as we finish it, or $30 to get the digital version plus a lovely, numbered hardback. So all we really want people to do is buy our book ahead of time. We'll ship it anywhere, for free.
Then of course there's some awesome but more expensive rewards, like 10 books with hand-drawn and hand-coloured covers (each book's cover will be unique, and we take requests!). Five pages of painted art are available (well, three are left -- two have been pledged for). This is actually pretty special, as Jimmy works entirely digitally so there are only 12 pages out of the entire book that will exist as physical objects. These dozen are from the book's climactic end, which is fully painted, in oils. Jimmy doesn't really sell his art or do conventions/take commissions, so this Kickstarter is a very unique opportunity to get some art from what hopefully will be a pretty legendary book. Oh and if you have a bunch of money, you can even be immortalised as a fictional character, with your likeness and name being given to an important secondary character. We're also quite upfront about the film rights and the trade printing rights being available for pretty much all markets. Interested in them? Contact us.
TM: In other interviews, you said that you had refused comics publishers for Ashes. Your reasoning was very sound. Could you explain it for those who are not aware?
ALEX: It's easy to get published in comics. [Er… Really? Wow. OK - TM] Getting a book made is tough (as nobody pays advances or page rates any more for indie work), but getting it published is easy. You just have to finish the book completely ahead of time, and present it to the publisher. They publish it, and send you some money six to nine months later.
However, many publishers want to take 50% of all your rights in the book (including film rights) in return for... publishing that finished book which they had no hand in making. Not in exchange for advancing you money so you can live while writing/drawing the book (they don't do that); only for taking your completed book, calling up the printers, and calling up Diamond (the US comics distributor). I don't think that's right . Lots of people accept deals like that because they are so desperate to be published, or they're young and don't know better or like 99% of comics creators they don't have an agent to protect them, but that still doesn't make it right.
The publisher is getting a very important something for nothing -- no up front expenditure or risk, or indeed commitment to the team/book. And if, heaven forefend you question those contracts, or bring in an agent or lawyer to negotiate them, the publisher just... stops.... talking. It's like they know they are wrong and are scared when an expert's eye is shone on their grubby, unfair, little contracts. I've had this same conversation with so many indie creators, and not a few agents -- the embarrassed silence one gets in response when attempting to negotiate with those comics publishers.
I'm happy with publishers not giving an advance, if they don't expect a share in rights. I'm actually happy with giving up rights, if the publisher pays for my artist and me to be able to afford food and rent while we make the book. But if you give me no cake? And no pie? Than you shall not have my book, sir.
TM: It's good to see that you'll all for independent creators, like myself and others… Or rather talented ones. Anyway, every published comic creator is faced with this question, so I'll put a disclaimer before it. Robert Kirkman's advice to new creators is to consider yourself as "sucking" at the medium first, so that you can obtain critical feedback to improve (this way, you don't start off thinking you're the next Alan Moore or Gail Simone); Alan Moore's advice is more optimistic, thinking that "someone" will notice your "hard work" (whatever that is). Concerning writers in particular, what tips do you have for aspiring comic creators in this current climate of wary (to put it politely) publishers?
ALEX: Your first thousand pages will be terrible. (Mine were. I have entire books, and four or five screenplays, that I will never allow to see the light of day). Maybe all of your pages will be terrible. But you must remember when you craft a story that it is, indeed, a craft, and you must go to labour at it every day. And first you will apprentice, and then you will be a journeyman, and maybe, just maybe, one day you will be a master. You are not above the work. Blogs, emails, and twitter do not count as writing exercise, any more than playing-card houses count as architecture -- long form fiction is a craft unto itself. Go to it, with your heart bright and glad. You are also not above criticism. In every critique, no matter how mean-spirited or (so you think) baseless, is a grain of truth. You must be sensitive enough to find that grain, and brave enough to go on despite what finding it has done to your ego.
Don't make convenient choices for the script. Write your characters into situations that you truly don't know how to get out of, then work your way out of them. Make sure your characters have real reactions to events... have the reaction you honestly would have, not the reaction you think a fictionalised better version of yourself would have. That fictionalised better version is a bullshit person who nobody will believe.
And lastly, as you write, you will -- or you should -- become aware of patterns in your stories. Why is the woman always beaten up? Why does your hero always talk in a certain way, come from a certain class, have a first name with one syllable and a surname with two syllables? Why is the bad guy always the government? Et cetera. Writing is a method of self-analysis, and you will play out in your stories certain things which disturb your subconscious. Look for those patterns, figure out what you (or your psyche) are searching for by writing them so frequently, and then write them so well and so truly that you need not visit them again. The more you write honestly, the less you dream, for the less the subconscious must toil. But be careful. Yeats was right -- "I must go down to where the ladders start / To the foul rag and bone shop of the heart". That is where stories begin. Be honest. Be hardworking. And listen... to others, to yourself.
So to reiterate, Alex de Campi’s advice for writers is:
(1) Write your nonsense stories out your system.
(2) Actually sit and write, treating it as a craft. FaceBook fighting is not writing.
(3) Take criticism as a criticism of your work and not you, despite how it feels. You are not perfect, everything can be improved. It will take someone other than yourself to usually find where you need to improve on that.
(4) Operate with realism not convenience, since the latter is detectable bullshit.
(5) Be aware of patterns in your writing.
TM: Many answer simply NO to this, but do you have a writing "process"? I've never had one myself, but I'm always interested in good writers' methods (even if it's to say they don't have one).
ALEX: I circle a story for years, turning it over in my head, jotting notes, making false starts towards it. Then one day when I am quite not expecting it, the story tugs quietly at my sleeve and says, "I am ready to be written now". Then the actual work begins, chopping a path through the uncharted jungle from the beginning, which I always know ahead of time, to the end, which I also always know ahead of time. In the middle, there be monsters.
Thanks to Ms. de Campi for the amazing insights into all aspects of comic creation. I’m sure I’m not the only one that will view this as invaluable and brilliant advice, as I attempt to integrate myself in this strange beast. You can find out more about here at her website. I think she did an amazing job in this interview.
Importantly, I hope that if you value quality and beauty in your creative mediums, that you will help Ms de Campi and artist Jimmy Broxton with their Kickstarter project for Ashes. Instead of spending money on the tripe from Hollywood or all the bad comics out there, why not invest in the actual, talented creators directly? Everyone benefits and we can, through measures like this, attempt to help our beloved medium.
November 14, 2011
Searching for Pluralism
Some terms come with a built-in halo. We use words like inclusive, liberation, empowerment, and diversity to characterize that which we aim to praise. For example, when a murderer gets off on a technicality, we say that he has been released rather than liberated. A club that welcomes membership from all who should be invited is inclusive, whereas one which denies membership to some who are entitled to it is exclusionary. Importantly, a club that has a highly restricted membership but does not deny membership to anyone who is entitled to it is not exclusionary, but exclusive. A club is exclusionary when it unjustifiably denies membership to some; it is exclusive when its membership is justifiably limited. In short, many terms do double-duty as both descriptive and evaluative. Or, to put the matter more precisely, some terms serve to describe how things stand from an evaluative perspective.
This is not news. However, it is worth noting that a lot can be gained from blurring the distinction between the descriptive and evaluative senses of such terms. For example, when one succeeds at describing an institution as exclusionary, one often thereby succeeds at placing an argumentative burden on those who support it. Now supporters of the institution in question must not only make their case in favor of the institution; they must also make an additional argument that it is not, in fact, exclusionary. Sometimes what looks like argumentative success is really just success at complicating the agenda of one’s opponents.
The point works in the other direction, too. When one successfully casts a policy as one which furthers diversity and empowers individuals, one has already made good progress towards justifying it. Very few oppose diversity and empowerment, and so a policy which is understood to embrace these values is to some extent ipso facto justified; those who support the policy in question simply need to announce that it serves diversity and empowerment. This is vindication by association.
The trouble with halo terms is that their power derives from their vagueness. As we have noted, everyone opposes exclusionary institutions and supports inclusive ones because everyone agrees that institutions should include all who should be included. And there’s the rub. There is far less agreement over the details concerning who is entitled to inclusion and why; in fact, on any issue of substance, there is great disagreement over these matters. Halo terms serve to distract away from the controversial details and towards the wholly endorsable but nearly vacuous verbal formulae: Include everyone who should be included! Permit the permissible! Do what’s right! These are not judgments so much as slogans parading as judgments.
In Philosophy, pluralism is a halo term, and it is put to use in a wide variety of contexts across a range of disciplinary sub-fields, including political philosophy, ethics, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology. But the term is used also in discussions about the nature of Philosophy itself. Sometimes, entire schools of thought are characterized as pluralistic, and others are dismissed for being “narrow” or otherwise non-pluralistic. In the arena of professional Philosophy, there is consequently a lot of jockeying for control over the term and its application. Much of this is somewhat embarrassing and rightly contested.
Naturally, trouble emerges when one tries to get a clear sense of what philosophical pluralism is. In a newly published book, Pluralism and Liberal Politics, one of us (Talisse) has tried to work through these complex issues. The term is often used to designate a commitment to a range of admirable traits, including open-mindedness and toleration. Sometimes it is also meant to convey an appreciation of diversity, or even the view that differences are good and should be encouraged. Self-identifying with the view seems, further, to correlate with other commitments, like taking underrepresented groups seriously, maintaining dialogue, and avoiding dogmatism about both the nature of Philosophy and the variety of value. Yet, in the end, all such conceptions of pluralism are vacuous. Here’s why. No conception of toleration or open-mindedness recommends those virtues across the board. Every conception of toleration identifies limits to what deserves toleration; and every conception of open-mindedness draws a distinction between possibilities that are worth being open to and those which are not. No advocate of toleration recommends that we tolerate real-world bands of armed fascists bent on world domination; no proponent of open-mindedness would suggest that we give closed-minded dogmatic bigotry a try. Every conception of toleration and open-mindedness identifies limits to what must be tolerated and seriously considered. But that is to say that on any conception of toleration and open-mindedness, there will be some views which are intolerable and unworthy of serious consideration.
Here again is the rub. Even the most dogmatic among us takes himself to be tolerant and open-minded; on his view, he tolerates everything that deserves toleration and openly considers all positions worthy of consideration. As it turns out, the dogmatist simply has far more circumscribed conceptions of what deserves toleration and serious consideration. So the disagreement between the dogmatist and others is not properly characterized a disagreement concerning the value of open-mindedness or toleration. The disagreement rather concerns the substantive matter of what the proper scope of toleration and open-mindedness is.
One may be tempted to cast the dogmatist as someone who employs an unduly narrow conception of what must be tolerated. And this may be correct so far as it goes. But, in the end, it does not go very far. Once again, every conception of the scope of toleration identifies limits to the tolerable. And for every conception of toleration, there is some other conception that charges the first with undue narrowness. To return to our original point, although our use of terms like toleration sometimes suggests that there is a simple, clean and purely descriptive way of separating out the tolerant from the intolerant, there is in the end no way of eschewing the substantive evaluative issues.
Accordingly, if pluralism is the philosophical position that recognizes differences within a given domain of philosophical inquiry and advocates toleration and open-mindedness across those differences, it is nearly vacuous. No one in Philosophy advocates intolerance and closed-mindedness; rather, philosophers differ over substantive questions concerning what kinds of differences can be plausibly seen as philosophical differences, as opposed to differences between Philosophy and something else, such as natural science or literary theory. Those who vie for the label in order to apply it to their own favored position or agenda within Philosophy are involved in political sloganeering, not meta-philosophical argument.
Yet there seems to be a paradox at the heart of the idea of pluralism as a political movement within Philosophy. Political movements must be set against an opponent. But philosophers who embrace the pluralist label present themselves as the champions of legitimate philosophical opposition, and welcoming of the full variety of philosophical difference. They are bound, then, to see their opposition as deriving from outside of Philosophy properly construed. For if they recognized the opposition between pluralists and non-pluralists as a dispute within Philosophy, they would have to embrace the legitimacy of both sides, and would have no basis for a political movement within the discipline. As it turns out, like everyone else, the self-described pluralists advocate for toleration of the tolerable, and inclusion of that which is entitled to inclusion. And it turns out that for the self-described pluralists, the category of the tolerable and to-be-included extends only as far those who see Philosophy in roughly the same way they see it.
September 19, 2011
Philosophy and Failure
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Some philosophers are nearly unanimously considered great. Plato, Aristotle, and Kant make the short list. But that happy unanimity does not persist when the question is which is right. Of these three, at most one is. Likely none is. And so it is appropriate to ask: How can we consider someone to be a great philosopher yet mostly wrong? By many lights, Plato was wrong about ethics, politics, knowledge, and the basic structure of reality. That is, Plato was wrong on most of the big questions that philosophers try to answer. Yet Plato was a great philosopher. Why?
Some demur. They contend that the only great philosophers are those who get things right; consequently, they hold that being wrong on the big questions disqualifies a philosopher for greatness. Those who take this position tend see another philosopher as getting things right only when that philosopher agrees with their own views. They thus recognize no opponent to their views as being philosophically great. How convenient.
It is, of course, an error not to recognize that there are varieties of intelligent challenges and alternatives to even the best philosophical views. For every great philosophical idea, there is usually a great philosophical opponent. An education in philosophy is comprised not only of knowing those alternatives, but of acquiring the skill of navigating the tensions between views, and of seeing that there can be philosophical value in error. To see philosophical greatness as consistent with demonstrable error is the mark of philosophical maturity.
Richard Gale’s recent book, John Dewey’s Quest for Unity (Prometheus, 2010), is a model of this kind of maturity. We’ve separately reviewed the book elsewhere (Aikin HERE, Talisse forthcoming HERE), and though we’ve disagreed with some of Gale’s substantive contentions, we hold his book to embody the ethic of critical respect essential to philosophy done well.
Gale opens his book with unrestrained admiration for John Dewey the man and his philosophical program. Dewey, he says, “was not just a great American philosopher. . . he was a great American hero as well” (9). Then Gale contends that “In a more enlightened society than ours, John Dewey would be among Mattel’s best-selling action figures, coming complete with moustache. . . and a beat up old typewriter” (9). Gale favorably compares Dewey to the Milesian physicists, John the Baptist, Prometheus the Titan, and even Elvis Presley. These are all ringing endorsements of Dewey’s character, vision, and commitment.
But then Gale launches into a series of critical arguments. He charges Dewey’s ethics with “moral idiocy” (69), and he compares Dewey’s public philosophy with the sales pitch of a “Madison Avenue huckster” (84). He argues that the core Deweyan view of event ontology suffers from an obvious logical “howler” (121), and he accuses Dewey’s scientific program in philosophy as “fake empiricism” (168). With admirers like these, who needs critics?
On the face of it, this seems strange. Is Gale being two-faced? Are his expressions of admiration disingenuous? Is there a conflict, a contradiction, here? We think not. In philosophy, precise arguments, acceptable premises, and plausible conclusions are good and desirable. We want the truth, and we want it in the right way. But one also needs vision and aspiration. Philosophers need problems worth solving, conceptual irritations, tough questions about the intelligibility of it all (or at least of a good bit of it all). Being captivated by a philosophical task is the first part; the other work-- the philosophy-- comes later.
Gale identifies Dewey’s problem with what he colorfully calls the “Humpty Dumpty Intuition”: If reality is analyzed as being comprised of discrete elements, it does not form a unity, and as a consequence, it is impossible to see it as a coherent whole (23). According to Gale, Dewey was stricken by the worry that once reality is broken down into distinct parts, it can’t put it back together again. The key, then, is to not disturb the unity. One must not let Humpty Dumpty fall in the first place. One must maintain reality’s simple intelligibility.
Gale identifies the trouble not in the aspiration, but in Dewey’s attempts to achieve it. Because his goal is the unity of all, Dewey must synthesize things that just don’t go together. In aesthetics, he must unify the ineffable private experiences of the beautiful with the public criteria for articulable good. In epistemology, he must unify the demand for inquiry in all aspects of human life with the fact that there are things you shouldn’t want to know. In ethics, the objective is to synthesize all of one’s goals despite the fact that many of those goals essentially conflict (according to Gale, Dewey’s own life was marred by a conflict between love and marriage). Most generally, Dewey’s philosophy attempts to bring the methods of natural science and empirical verification under the broader mystical vision of the unity of all. But in the end, empiricism is inconsistent with mysticism.
The result, according to Gale, that Dewey’s systematic philosophy is “a house divided against itself” (206). Yet Gale sees that the crucial task for those who read great philosophers is that of grasping the aspiration behind the philosophical program. According to Gale, Dewey’s philosophy is driven by a felt need to preserve unity while giving multiplicity its due. There is a kind of heroism in Dewey’s endeavor, even if, in the end, he fails. Having the insight to grasp a deep and foreboding philosophical problem, and fortitude to devote one’s life to addressing it unflinchingly is a mark of philosophical greatness. It is a mark of intellectual respect to subject the efforts of great philosophers to unrelenting criticism. By doing so, we do our part in enabling the next attempt.
Book Review: ALL THINGS SHINING: READING THE WESTERN CLASSICS TO FIND MEANING IN A SECULAR AGE By Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
by Wayne Ferrier
ALL THINGS SHINING is a book meant for a general readership, and I am approaching this review as a general reader rather than from within the academic consortia. I may not be the ideal person to review this book. First off, I don't feel like my life is worthless or lacking meaning, which the authors assume is the way most of us feel; secondly, reading Dreyfus and Kelly reminded me why I gave up on philosophy in favor of science; finally, if I had to choose, I'd choose monotheism to polytheism any day.
I do think that it can't hurt to peruse the classics and/or philosophy in search for meaning, but so much of it is long winded and more often than not takes you on a journey into the incessant clamoring of the individual intellect; itself often leading to depression. Each sentence, perhaps each paragraph of ALL THINGS SHINING makes glorious sense, yet it made no sense to me what the authors are getting at. If I were to boil it down, I am left feeling that the thesis is an emperor without clothing. After reading, it is hoped that we'd wish to escape the supposed nihilism of our hopelessly lost modern dilemma. Calling upon a pantheon of Homeric gods is the way to bring back the sacred, to restore meaning. Man himself cannot do great things nor should he be expected to—when man acts great, it's the doing of the gods. To not acknowledge this is being ungrateful. We have lost touch by not honoring and respecting these gods, who can supply so much benevolence; gods which I could not make out, by reading this book, if we are really supposed to believe in or not.
The monotheism offered in ALL THINGS SHINING, and we are advised to abandon, is taken from Dante's poetry, concepts from the Middle Ages rather than the monotheism found in scripture. What is ironic it's just this version of monotheism that is more Greek than of Abraham; ideas such as the Inferno, (Hell, Hades), were incorporated into early Christianity when it was being exported to the west.
The leap from many gods to one God did not come suddenly—it took time. Monotheism was a new paradigm in human thinking, evidence of what the human mind was becoming capable of doing. The ancients had been exposed to the so-called wisdom literature and came to believe in a common human heritage and universal thought. I see no reason to go back. If you're looking for a book to help you find the meaning of life, you may not find it here. On the other hand, if you're looking for a book to introduce you to a thread of philosophy running through several important classics, you might enjoy it.
August 01, 2011
Kipple and Things: How to Hoard and Why Not To Mean
This paper (more of an essay, really) was originally delivered at the Birkbeck Uni/London Consortium ‘Rubbish Symposium‘, 30th July 2011
Living at the very limit of his means, Philip K. Dick, a two-bit, pulp sci-fi author, was having a hard time maintaining his livelihood. It was the 1950s and Dick was living with his second wife, Kleo, in a run-down apartment in Berkley, California, surrounded by library books Dick later claimed they “could not afford to pay the fines on.”
In 1956, Dick had a short story published in a brand new pulp magazine: Satellite Science Fiction. Entitled, Pay for the Printer, the story contained a whole host of themes that would come to dominate his work
On an Earth gripped by nuclear winter, humankind has all but forgotten the skills of invention and craft. An alien, blob-like, species known as the Biltong co-habit Earth with the humans. They have an innate ability to ‘print’ things, popping out copies of any object they are shown from their formless bellies. The humans are enslaved not simply because everything is replicated for them, but, in a twist Dick was to use again and again in his later works, as the Biltong grow old and tired, each copied object resembles the original less and less. Eventually everything emerges as an indistinct, black mush. The short story ends with the Biltong themselves decaying, leaving humankind on a planet full of collapsed houses, cars with no doors, and bottles of whiskey that taste like anti-freeze.
In his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick gave a name to this crumbling, ceaseless, disorder of objects: Kipple. A vision of a pudding-like universe, in which obsolescent objects merge, featureless and identical, flooding every apartment complex from here to the pock-marked surface of Mars.
“No one can win against kipple,”
“It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”
In kipple, Dick captured the process of entropy, and put it to work to describe the contradictions of mass-production and utility. Saved from the wreckage of the nuclear apocalypse, a host of original items – lawn mowers, woollen sweaters, cups of coffee – are in short supply. Nothing ‘new’ has been made for centuries. The Biltong must produce copies from copies made of copies – each replica seeded with errors will eventually resemble kipple.
Objects; things, are mortal; transient. The wrist-watch functions to mark the passing of time, until it finally runs down and becomes a memory of a wrist-watch: a skeleton, an icon, a piece of kipple. The butterfly emerges from its pupae in order to pass on its genes to another generation. Its demise – its kipple-isation – is programmed into its genetic code. A consequence of the lottery of biological inheritance. Both the wrist-watch and the butterfly have fulfilled their functions: I utilised the wrist-watch to mark time: the ‘genetic lottery’ utilised the butterfly to extend its lineage. Entropy is absolutely certain, and pure utility will always produce it.
In his book Genesis, Michel Serres, argues that objects are specific to the human lineage. Specific, not because of their utility, but because they indicate our drive to classify, categorise and order:
“The object, for us, makes history slow.”
Before things become kipple, they stand distinct from one another. Nature seems to us defined in a similar way, between a tiger and a zebra there appears a broad gap, indicated in the creatures’ inability to mate with one another; indicated by the claws of the tiger and the hooves of the zebra. But this gap is an illusion, as Michel Foucault neatly points out inThe Order of Things:
“…all nature forms one great fabric in which beings resemble one another from one to the next…”
The dividing lines indicating categories of difference are always unreal, abstracted from the ‘great fabric’ of nature, and understood through human categories isolated in language.
Humans themselves are constituted by this great fabric: our culture and language lie on the same fabric. Our apparent mastery over creation comes from one simple quirk of our being: the tendency we exhibit to categorise, to cleave through the fabric of creation. For Philip K. Dick, this act is what separates us from the alien Biltong. They can merely copy, a repeated play of resemblance that with each iteration moves away from the ideal form. Humans, on the other hand, can do more than copy. They can take kipple and distinguish it from itself, endlessly, through categorisation and classification. Far from using things until they run down, humans build new relations, new meanings, carefully and slowly from the mush. New categories produce new things, produce newness. At least, that’s what Dick – a Platonic idealist – believed.
At the end of Pay for the Printer, a disparate group camp in the kipple-ised, sagging pudding of a formless city. One of the settlers has with him a crude wooden cup he has apparently cleaved himself with an even cruder, hand-made knife:
“You made this knife?” Fergesson asked, dazed.
“I can’t believe it. Where do you start? You have to have tools to make this. It’s a paradox!”
In his essay, The System of Collecting, Jean Baudrillard makes a case for the profound subjectivity produced in this apparent newness.
Once things are divested of their function and placed into a collection, they:
“…constitute themselves as a system, on the basis of which the subject seeks to piece together [their] world, [their] personal microcosm.”
The use-value of objects gives way to the passion of systematization, of order, sequence and the projected perfection of the complete set.
In the collection, function is replaced by exemplification. The limits of the collection dictate a paradigm of finality; of perfection. Each object – whether wrist-watch or butterfly – exists to define new orders. Once the blue butterfly is added to the collection it stands, alone, as an example of the class of blue butterflies to which the collection dictates it belongs. Placed alongside the yellow and green butterflies, the blue butterfly exists to constitute all three as a series. The entire series itself then becomes the example of all butterflies. A complete collection: a perfect catalogue. Perhaps, like Borges’ Library of Babel, or Plato’s ideal realm of forms, there exists a room somewhere with a catalogue of everything. An ocean of examples. Cosmic disorder re-constituted and classified as a finite catalogue, arranged for the grand cosmic collector’s singular pleasure.
The problem with catalogues is that absolutely anything can be collected and arranged. The zebra and the tiger may sit side-by-side if the collector is particularly interested in collecting mammals, striped quadrupeds or – a particularly broad collection – things that smell funny. Too much classification, too many cleaves in the fabric of creation, and order once again dissolves into kipple. Disorder arises when too many conditions of order have been imposed.
“[W]e must think of chaos not as a helter-skelter of worn-out and broken or halfheartedly realised things, like a junkyard or potter’s midden, but as a fluid mishmash of thinglessness in every lack of direction as if a blender had run amok. ‘AND’ is that sunderer. It stands between. It divides light from darkness.”
Collectors gather things about them in order to excerpt a mastery over the apparent disorder of creation. The collector attains true mastery over their microcosm. The narcissism of the individual extends to the precise limits of the catalogue he or she has arranged about them. Without AND language would function as nothing but pudding, each clause, condition or acting verb leaking into its partner, in an endless series. But the problem with AND, with classes, categories and order is that they can be cleaved anywhere.
Jorge Luis Borges exemplified this perfectly in a series of fictional lists he produced throughout his career. The most infamous, Michel Foucault claimed influenced him to write The Order of Things, the list refers to a “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” in which:
Animals are divided into
- belonging to the Emporer,
- sucking pigs,
- stray dogs,
- included in the present classification,
- drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
- et cetera,
- having just broken the water pitcher,
- that from a long way off look like flies…
In writing about his short story The Aleph, Borges also remarked:
“My chief problem in writing the story lay in… setting down of a limited catalog of endless things. The task, as is evident, is impossible, for such a chaotic enumeration can only be simulated, and every apparently haphazard element has to be linked to its neighbour either by secret association or by contrast.”
No class of things, no collection, no cleaving of kipple into nonkipple can escape the functions of either “association OR contrast…” The lists Borges compiled are worthy of note because they remind us of the binary contradiction classification always comes back to:
- Firstly, that all collections are arbitrary
- and Secondly, that a perfect collection of things is impossible, because, in the final instance there is only pudding “…in every lack of direction…”
Human narcissism – our apparent mastery over kipple – is an illusion. Collect too many things together, and you re-produce the conditions of chaos you tried so hard to avoid. When the act of collecting comes to take precedence over the microcosm of the collection, when the differentiation of things begins to break down: collectors cease being collectors and become hoarders. The hoard exemplifies chaos: the very thing the collector builds their catalogues in opposition to.
To tease apart what distinguishes the hoarder, from the collector, I’d like to introduce two new characters into this arbitrary list I have arranged about myself. Some of you may have heard of them, indeed, they are the brothers whom the syndrome of compulsive hoarding is named after.
Brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer lived in a mansion at 2078, Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. Sons of wealthy parents – their father was a respected gynaecologist, their mother a renowned opera singer – the brothers both attended Columbia University, where Homer studied law and Langley engineering. In 1933 Homer suffered a stroke which left him blind and unable to work at his law firm. As Langley began to devote his time entirely to looking after his helpless brother, both men became locked inside the mansion their family’s wealth and prestige had delivered. Over the following decade or so Langley would leave the house only at night. Wandering the streets of Manhattan, collecting water and provisions to sustain his needy brother, Langley’s routines became obsessive, giving his life a meaning above and beyond the streets of Harlem that were fast becoming run-down and decrepid.
But the clutter only went one way: into the house.
On March 21st 1947 the New York Police Department received an anonymous tip-off that there was a dead body in the Collyer mansion. Attempting to gain entry, police smashed down the front-door, only to be confronted with a solid wall of newspapers (which, Langley had claimed to reporter’s years earlier his brother “would read once his eyesight was restored”.) Finally, after climbing in through an upstairs window, a patrolman found the body of Homer – now 65 years old – slumped dead in his kippleised armchair. In the weeks that followed, police removed one hundred and thirty tons of rubbish from the house. Langley’s body was eventually discovered crushed and decomposing under an enormous mound of junk, lying only a few feet from where Homer had starved to death. Crawling through the detritus to reach his ailing brother, Langley had triggered one of his own booby traps, set in place to catch any robbers who attempted to steal the brother’s clutter.
The list of objects pulled from the brother’s house reads like a Borges original. FromWikipedia:
Items removed from the house included baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer’s hope chests, rusty bed springs, a kerosene stove, a child’s chair, more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of an old Model T Ford, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, 14 pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines.
Finally: There was also a great deal of rubbish.
A Time Magazine obituary from April 1947 said of the Collyer brothers:
“They were shy men, and showed little inclination to brave the noisy world.”
In a final ironic twist of kippleisation, the brothers themselves became mere examples within the system of clutter they had amassed. Langley especially had hoarded himself to death. His body, gnawed by rats, was hardly distinguishable from the kipple that fell on top of it. The noisy world had been replaced by the noise of the hoard: a collection so impossible to conceive, to cleave, to order, that it had dissolved once more to pure, featureless kipple.
Many hoarders achieve a similar fate to the Collyer brothers: their clutter eventually wiping them out in one final collapse of systemic disorder.
But what of Philip K. Dick....?
In the 1960s, fuelled by amphetamines and a debilitating paranoia, Dick wrote 24 novels, and hundreds of short stories, the duds and the classics mashed together into an indistinguishable hoard. UBIK, published in 1966, tells of a world which is itself degrading. Objects regress to previous forms, 3D televisions turn into black and white tube-sets, then stuttering reel projectors; credit cards slowly change into handfuls of rusted coins, impressed with the faces of Presidents long since deceased. Turning his back for a few minutes a character’s hover vehicle has degraded to become a bi-propeller airplane.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, another stand-out novel from the mid 60s, begins with this memo, “dictated by Leo Bulero immediately on his return from Mars”:
“I mean, after all; you have to consider we’re only made out of dust. That’s admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn’t forget that. But even considering, I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it. You get me?”
July 25, 2011
The Dignity of Skepticism
Being a responsible believer requires one to have reasons for one’s beliefs. In fact, it seems that having reasons for one’s beliefs is a requirement for seeing them as beliefs at all. Consider the conflict in thought that arises with assertions like the following:
I believe I live in Nebraska, but I have no idea why I believe that.
I hold firmly that there are jellybeans in that dish, but I have no reason for doing so.
I’m confident that it will not rain on the picnic, but I have no evidence for that.
I support a flat-tax system, but all of my information concerning economic matters is highly unreliable.
Statements like these are conflicted because in each the but-clause seems to retract the grounds for asserting what came before. To affirm, for example, that one lives in Nebraska is often to affirm also that that one has reasons that are sufficient to support that claim. Statements of the kind above, then, don’t look like they could be beliefs at all; they rather something else – perhaps a cognitive symptom, an obsession, a queer dogmatism.
We may say that beliefs are supposed to be not only reason-responsive, but reason-reflective. Our beliefs should be based on our evidence and proportioned to the force of our evidence. And so, when we hold beliefs, we take ourselves to be entitled to reason to and from them. So beliefs must be backed by reasons.
Reason-backing has a curious pattern, however. Each belief must be backed by reasons. But those backing reasons must themselves be backed by still further reasons. And so on. It seems, then, that every belief must be supported by a long chain of supporting reasons.
This is a point familiar to anyone who has spent time with children. Why? is a question that can be (and often is) asked indefinitely. The child’s game of incessantly asking why? may not be particularly serious, but it calls attention to the fact that, for every belief you hold, you ought to be able to say why you hold it.
These rough observations give rise to a deep problem, one that has been at the core of the philosophical sub-discipline of epistemology since its inception.In contemporary parlance, it is called the regress problem. Briefly stated, the problem is this: Responsibly held beliefs are held on the basis of chains of reasoning. These chains of reasons may come in three forms: circles, finite chains, and infinite chains. Initially, none of these options seems to offer a fully satisfying account of responsible believing. Circular chains of reasons look patently fallacious; they “beg the question.” Finite chains of reasons terminate with beliefs which often look like arbitrary endpoints. If they are arbitrary endpoints for reasoning, then they aren’t really reasons after all. Yet if they are not arbitrary, then they enjoy the support of still further reasons, and thus they aren’t really endpoints. Infinite chains of reasons seem to forever defer the question of whether any belief is held responsibly; hence they defeat human understanding, and so are not viable options for finite creatures like ourselves.
When the ancient skeptic Sextus Empiricus posed this challenge to the project of responsible believing (and thereby, to knowledge, too), he found that it was best, given the obvious structural difficulties raised by the alternatives, to suspend judgment about all things. Notice that something ironic has happened. In order to avoid queer dogmatisms, we have ended up with a skepticism that appears equally queer. Indeed, most philosophers since have vehemently opposed skepticism as not only queer, but positively pernicious. And so the traditional road of philosophy veers back into dogmatism in the face of the regress problem. In more recent philosophy, the three options for chains of reasons have been refurbished. Coherentism is the view that reasons come as systems, and therefore circular chains of reasons can be virtuous. Foundationalism is the view that some reasons are self-verifying or “basic,” and therefore finite chains of reasons can terminate in non-arbitrary endpoints. Infinitism is the view that chains of reasons are in fact infinite, and this does not pose a problem for responsible belief at all. (This view is under-represented, but Aikin's recent book Epistemology and the Regress Problem makes a case.) In addition, some epistemologists propose that the requirement of reason-backing is sometimes suspended, and that certain kinds of beliefs - religious, cultural, or commonsensical beliefs - stand in need of no backing reasons at all.
Centuries of epistemological debate have been fueled by the felt need to resist skepticism at all costs. But we ask: Is skepticism really so awful? Is philosophical dogmatism really preferable? The skeptic is presented in the history of philosophy as a kind of pseudo-intellectual bully who wouldn’t dare to live by his professed doctrine. But this is surely an intentionally unflattering portrait fashioned by anti-skeptics for propagandistic purposes. A more evenhanded estimation has it that the central skeptical aspirations are intellectual integrity and intellectual self-control. Far from being a petty nay-sayer, the skeptic has the cognitive courage to admit when she does not know and when she has nothing more to say. Moreover, the skeptic is especially attuned to the easy counterfeits for intellectual responsibility that all too often pass for intellectual rigor, and is keen to maintain a strict policy of self-criticism. When seen in this light, we find that there is an undeniable kind of Socratic dignity in a skeptical life. Moreover, there is no doubt something shameful in acquiescing in comfortable dogmas, even those dressed up in the garb of philosophical sophistication. To be sure, this noble vision of the dignified skeptic is open to dispute. But we hold that if the going solutions to the regress problem do not pass muster, the skeptical consequences should be wholeheartedly embraced.
June 06, 2011
Sympathy for Monsters: Reflecting on the Film 'Let Me In'
by Tauriq Moosa
In his treatise, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke wrote: “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” The extent to which this is true is beyond our concern, but there is little doubt fear often puts rationality in a cage, chains the door and kicks it into a silent corner. It is this reaction that great horror writers, from Edgar Allan Poe to Clive Barker and Stephen King to John Ajvide Lindqvist, have sought in their works. It is not the alien beings or giant monsters which terrify us as readers, but often human characters portrayed in vulnerable positions fighting to escape the horror of their sudden environment.
Consider a world populated by giant monsters. Giant monsters who hunted other giant beasts, as non-human animals do here ‘in the wild’. A book that described this might be interesting, but hardly terrifying if it made no reference of threats to humans or creatures with vague properties of personhood (emotions, consciousness, etc.). It would be about as terrifying as a nature documentary on whale sharks. And think of the corollary: a house. Houses on their own hardly seem interesting places, but in the right kind of light, penned by a master story-teller, they can become the most terrifying of places.
It is thus the relation to humans or beings with personhood that matter. The wonderful movie ‘Wall-E’ has a robot title-character who displays emotions, actions, self-consciousness (i.e. properties of personhood). We identify with Wall-E because of these properties, showing that we care for persons not necessarily or only for humans. That is why any robot or alien – or even toys – have to display personhood for us to care: they need not even be shaped like humans for us to care about them. As long as they display engagement with their environment, there is reason for us to care about their well-being (since they display a care for their individual well-being and others’).
This why the movie ‘Let Me In’ has come to replace ‘Inception’ as my second favourite movie of the decade (my list will be at the end for those who care).
Overview of ‘Let Me In’
‘Let Me In’ is an American version of the Swedish film ‘Let the Right One In’, itself based on the Swedish novel of the same name by John Lindqvist (if you’re interested in how to pronounce his name, see here).
The story relates the relationship of Owen, a bullied loner, and Abby, a centuries’ old vampire in the body of a bare-foot twelve-year old. In the beginning, we are introduced to Abby and her ‘father’ when they move in to the same dilapidated, dirty apartment building as Owen. Owen spends his time outside, in the dark and snow, contemplating murder of his bullies and other normal, preteen boys’ thoughts while singing a ditty in his girlish voice. One night Abby introduces herself by announcing they can never be friends. Of course, this changes rapidly due to their contrast and similarities. Like pieces of broken mirror, they fit together uneasily but when together reflect their world to greater degrees.
My description does little justice to the beauty of the film. The visuals alone are striking: the harsh contrast of snow at night; the violence and brutality emerging from the body of an innocent-looking girl; the notable femininity of Owen and the strength and silence and watchfulness of Abby; Owen’s mother whose face you never see and might as well be absent in terms of parental duties, serving only to irritate Owen and be a bedrock of confusion and isolation. The acting is remarkable but the ability to pull through stretches of silence without losing the audience’s interest more so.
However, reflecting on this, one is drawn to a number of incredible conclusions. There is nothing simple or easily outlined: Abby is not clearly evil, Owen is not a strong character but retains your empathy, the bullies are awful but not clearly bad people. The only contrast is the visuals and in-between this is a thousand shades of grey called character profiles.
Monster and Man
I’ve said Abby isn’t clearly evil. She is a vampire and vampires traditionally are evil. However, what makes this classification difficult is the clear similarities to humans. Movies that transform the vampires into clearly horrific creatures miss out on doing something more terrifying, which movies like ‘Let Me In’ and ‘Interview with a Vampire’ pulled off: creating vampires with, whom you sympathise, battling humans, with whom you do not.
George Romero has done this successfully by creating the zombie genre, but displaying the awful things humans – live, not undead ones – are prepared to do in order to survive. Betrayal, murder, revenge all arise despite the need everyone has to survive.
But this is apparent even when not fighting for survival. In one of Romero’s later movies, ‘Land of the Dead’, we see a community of zombies shuffling, not harming anyone. They have learnt to interact, hold hands, put gas pumps into cars. The audience is led to believe these disgusting creatures are gaining some form of intelligence; they are also not harming anyone since humans are sealed off in a protected city (consider our planet of giant monsters above where similarly there was no threat to humans). Suddenly, with hooting and tooting and typical macho bravado, cars with gun-toting marines drive through the streets shooting the zombies. Limbs fly as the hapless creatures struggle to turn or even run – since they are too slow. The audience feels revulsion at the senseless violence: after all, these are human-like creatures – ugly yes but not harming anyone – and showing something akin to intelligence, too slow to react in ways to protect themselves. And here they are outmanned, outgunned and ‘out-vehicled’ by macho marines clearly enjoying pumping bullets into these miserable creatures.
Sympathy for monsters is a difficult move to pull off but Romero and other good writers/directors can. This occurs in ‘Let Me In’. We are supposed to feel sympathy for Abby, despite her monstrous nature. She clearly cares for Owen, who has no one else. Abby, too, clearly has the ability to care as displayed by her affections to her ‘father’ – who is actually her familiar.
But there is a further move. In ‘Let Me In’ we have moved beyond simply dubbing monsters as ‘not entirely bad’ and human people as quite evil, with Romero, Stephen King and others blurring the line between monster and man. ‘Let Me In’ uses this blurred line as the baseline. Then it leaps over it into murkier waters. The rest is not clearly explained by the movie, but is an argument for why Abby is in fact a greater monster than most vampires, even in B-Grade movies.
Why Abby is Evil
When we first meet Abby, she is with an older man. We are meant to assume this man is her father. As we come to know what she is, we realise it’s impossible, since Abby is probably a few hundred years old and this man is not immortal. He is therefore her familiar; which according to some vampire traditions is a human tied to the vampire; a human who obtains blood and other necessities for the vampire, in exchange for some kind of reward. Often the reward is illusory, such as an unsurpassed affection and love from the vampire.
Again this touches on human vulnerability: being in love. What stupid things do people do ‘in the name of love’? There is a reason why many think murders committed as ‘crimes of passion’ should not be ranked as equal to those of, say, a serial killer (not because of number but of kind). Passion dulls the mind, in an attempt to fulfil itself. Everything else is simply an obstacle in the way of obtaining that which is strongly desired. Thus, it’s not unheard of for apparently normal people to do uncharacteristic things to obtain the affections of someone he or she desires. The vampire tradition simply plays on this.
True, sometimes the reward is of a supernatural kind: sometimes the familiar is himself granted immortality, great strength, etc. But that ruins the obvious vulnerability the vampire-familiar pact is playing on. The vein is already open and being sucked dry; there’s no need to add magic to this already powerful idea. In ‘Let Me In’, it’s not obvious that Abby’s familiar has any kind of power; he carries out his murders in a sluggish, slightly reluctant fashion. It’s not often we see Abby convey affection toward the older man. When she does, he is overcome by her touch and her approval. Again, this is no different than any other abusive relationship, where we see signs of Stockholm syndrome: the beaten woman who claims she loves her fist of a husband but remains.
What we notice about Abby's familiar is his age. If he is mortal, he is at an age where performing feats to feed Abby is becoming more burdensome. Sneaking and murdering is not for the old or unfit, which this man clearly is. His failure is apparent when Owen often hears screaming from Abby’s apartment.
When the audience first hears these shouts, screams and heavy thumps, we are – along with Owen – supposed to assume it is the older man, Abby’s ‘father’, yelling because of the deep-sounding voice. However, in a brilliantly filmed shot, we see Abby’s ‘father’/familiar slouched uncomfortably in a corner, covering his head and being yelled at. That deep-sounding voice, that heavy thumping – we are witness to Abby’s demonic side.
Again, this is no different to people revealing abusive, horrible sides. The tradition of possession by demons, the reason it is still often believed, is because of the remarkable change in someone’s character. It is almost as if something external has ‘possessed’ this person. We even talk about love and hatred as something external: I was in love, hatred was in my veins, etc. We don’t like to acknowledge that extremities bring focus to the million shades of grey that mark our personality; after all, to make grey you need black and white.
Anyway, the point this raises is that the familiar has been failing at pleasing Abby. His age, his reluctance, and his regular failure – evidenced by the constant yelling by the demonic child – tell us his usefulness is coming to an end. Seen in this light, with this realisation, suddenly Owen’s role is not as simple as it first appears. Owen may at first be a loner who is ‘saved’ by Abby; Abby may appear as fortuitous in Owen’s life but with the degradation of her current familiar’s usefulness, is it any wonder Abby does everything she can to save Owen despite the obvious ramification of being discovered?
Abby is evil precisely because the whole premise is not about friendship but usefulness. Abby used friendship to obtain him since she recognised that she could get another human to love her, given that he is the right age and would therefore be with her as long as he would be alive.
Indeed, we see the advantage of Abby being in the body of a young girl. Being young, she appears more innocent but, furthermore, she can acquire a familiar her own age and use him longer. True, if she was, say, in her thirties, she could just acquire a young familiar and call him her son; but it would probably be more difficult. It is easier in movement, in obtaining a familiar, to be a young girl.
Abby is evil in that even before Owen has a chance to be a free adult, he is already in her clutches. Considering he would be looking after her, he could never have a life which was not completely devoted to her: her security, her safety, her feeding. And if he fails, he will be punished. She has all the worst aspects of a pet and a monster and all the manipulation of a lover. A worst combination of monster – well, it’s hard to consider anything much worse, though there are a few.
Again, a Contrast
Yet, this is not remarkable. There are couples who exist exactly like this: bound by marriage, children, familiarity; perhaps they are bound by a dream, gagged by a lie and have tied themselves to a train-track called a relationship. Wherever their heads are placed, there is nothing so far removed from the supernatural relationship displayed by the evil Abby and her victim/familiar Owen.
To think this relationship is something special, only akin to vampires, would be to miss out on the contrast to, again, human relationships.
The most terrifying thing we experience is not the monster’s roar, the slithering tentacle. It’s not the sudden bang or the swinging lights. What keeps our blood pumping, what turns our hands into white knuckled fists, is the realisation that the things we call monstrous are found in our lives, amongst each other; horror is the light behind us putting shadows on the cave wall. At first, we call the shadows evil until we turn to see the light is merely reflecting our shapes and forms. This is what good horror does. This is indeed what ‘Let Me In’ performs beautifully.
There is nothing so monstrous as a man who thinks himself incapable of being a monster. Recognising this, it’s hard to say what is truly otherworldly about ‘Let Me In’. And that is what makes this movie so terrifying.
favourite contemporary movies
1. The Dark Knight
2. Let Me In
4. Life is Beautiful
May 16, 2011
Imagining an Expat Aesthetic
by James McGirk
I was born beside Sigmund Freud’s London townhome, and spent the next eighteen years ferried between Europe and Asia. Nominally American, it was not until I was seventeen-years-old that I could actually call the U.S. home, and even then I was so jangled from the shock of moving from India to a mountainous midwestern state, that I felt as if I had arrived from another planet. This was more than mere discomfort, I was so confused and unsure of who I was and what my role was meant to be I lost the ability to speak for months. Many years later – as a freshly minted Master of the Fine Art of fiction writing – one of my deepest anxieties stems from this dislocation and lack of authority. I lack a homeland to plunder for deep, meaningful memories from. Flannery O’Connor had Savannah, Georgia and generations of roots feeding her creations, Saul Bellow had Chicago, and Alice Munro has Southwestern Ontario. My own memories seem too fragmented and distant for the deep aesthetic dives they take, unless there is such a thing as expatriate literature. Could there be such a thing?
Immigrant fiction has a long, rich tradition that is not quite the same as expatriate fiction. Perhaps the difference has to do with authority. Migration has always been part of the human experience. For millennia we have been herded about and forcibly relocated. Immigration is active. To uproot your home and set it down elsewhere is a story. There is conflict and action built into this experience, so it lends itself to fictionalization. But being an expatriate is a completely different level of engagement than being immigrant. You either arrive as an agent or you arrive as a tourist. Either way you remain aloof; tethered elsewhere, staying at the whim of a foreign government, in a role where any intervention on your part is an imposition of some sort. Expatriate action either lacks agency, or is pure adventure and thus politically moot. What authority can an expatriate writer possibly have when compared to a national or an immigrant’s perspective? Outside of nationalist chauvinism, their only claim to some sort of special authority would be data based, such as technical expertise – the expatriate as consultant or mercenary; or as a gleaner of information – the expatriate as a journalist or spy.
Marco Polo, the great 13th Century Venetian traveler, was all of the above. He was a representative in the court of Kublai Khan and an agent of his family business concern.His account of his voyages through Iran, China, India and beyond – The Travels of Marco Polo – was as much intelligence briefing as it was aesthetic creation. Travels is a collection of descriptions, bordering on the anecdotal, others architectural, others merely practical. Farming practices share the page with improbable descriptions of local customs. Much of it was impossible and had to have been invented or at least embellished. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities imagined Marco Polo keeping the emperor Kublai Khan entertained, telling him story after story describing the cities he had traveled to, all of which were simply different facets of Venice. The idea of cities existing as layers upon layers overlain has a sort resonance with the expatriate experience; there is something undeniably architectural about it. The projection of home onto a foreign substrate. Or conversely finding and assembling traces of some far away place (that may never have existed at all) in a foreign city.
An unfamiliar skyline is a vivid reminder that you are not home. If a postcard is an index, physical proof of your presence in another city, it cannot be coincidence that architectural detail is among the most popular choice for an image sent home. And to find home you have to superimpose the familiar onto an alien architecture.
Marco Polo may have been the original expatriate author, but if there were a patron saint of the genre, it would be J.G. Ballard. Ballard was born and grew up in China, as the son of a British manufacturing executive. He lived a cloistered, comfortable life in Shanghai until about the age of 13, when the Japanese invaded China and he was sent to a Japanese interment camp. Later Ballard studied medicine and flew in the Royal Air Force. His stories are science fiction, set in dystopian ruined worlds, scientific outposts, vacation complexes and non-spaces like airports and freeway overpasses. To the true rootless cosmopolitan like Ballard – who was born a Briton in the ‘Shanghai International Settlement,’ a foreign enclave that has completely ceased to exist – those non-spaces might seem like home, or at least version of it. And perhaps this was true for Ballard. He eventually, and rather notoriously given his reputation as a strange, transgressive thinker, settled in Shepperton, a middle class suburb in Surrey (England).
That non-space is what I remember most, what I felt the most emotion recalling: the chubby shape of a jetliner, fins swirling within a cone of turbine, the jolt of connection when I heard English spoken by an American or Briton. There were also the brands, the international megabrands that at the time felt so reassuring, as if they were secret messages sent from home. But those memories don’t actually have the same punch as I can imagine a physical place having. For one they are constantly in flux, and also, as I came to actually living in the developed world, where my home supposedly is; I have seen so many of my idols humbled and desecrated. In the United States McDonalds is not the lusted after status symbol as it was in my junior high school in New Delhi (where the richest students would buy frozen McDonalds burgers by the gross in Singapore and have their cooks fry them up for parties back home); and even back then I understood that these symbols were never really mine.
What lies beneath all of that non-space is a sort of geometry, one I seek out instinctively. I can navigate a foreign city cold most of the time, sensing the diplomatic enclaves and bureaucratic zones that once contained my version of home. And I guess the gap where that geometry comes undone and things start to become sinister and broken is what I am most drawn to writing about. That would make the patron saint of expatriate writing Paul Bowles.
May 02, 2011
Dishonest to Whom?
Mary Warnock’s Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics (Continuum, 2010) is an ambitious book. In it, Warnock distinguishes religion from morality, demonstrates the dependence of religious reasoning on moral reasoning, and argues that religious perspectives are nevertheless crucial for social and political life. We have a review of the book forthcoming in The Philosopher’s Magazine. For the most part, we are in agreement with Warnock. But we do have some disagreements, and we want to focus here on one aspect of Warnock’s view that strikes us as especially troublesome, namely, Warnock’s conception of the value of religion in a secular society.
Warnock’s case in favor of religion is broadly consequentialist. She holds that religious institutions and practices should be sustained because, on balance, they are socially beneficial. Warnock contends that - unlike morality and the rule of law - religion is not necessary for civil society; yet she insists that “there is no possible argument for holding religion is outdated, or that it can be wholly replaced in society by science or by any other imaginative exercise” (159). Surely this is overstated. No possible argument for the social dispensability of religion? Really? Actual arguments for this conclusion are easy to find. Consider Hegel’s argument at the end of the Phenomenology that religion must give way to art and philosophy in public life. Or John Dewey’s argument in A Common Faith that the social and experiential benefits of religious life can be detached from religion and subsumed under a more substantive conception of democratic community, leaving religion to wither away.
It is likely that Warnock means to claim that there is no good argument for the dispensability of religion; that is, Warnock means to deny that there could be an argument for the dispensability of religion which gives religion its due.
Warnock affirms that religion can be morally good, and good for us. She holds that the stories of the New Testament “can teach morality as nothing else can, in vivid and memorable form” (159). Additionally, she holds religion is a civilizing force. Emotionally profound episodes in life call for ritual and ceremony; death, birth, thanksgiving, marriage are made public, sharable, and civil given their intersection with religion. Finally, Warnock emphasized the aesthetic dimension of religion; she holds that the breadth and depth of our imagination is increased with religious icons and stories. She claims that “to lose these things, though it would not be the end of society, would be its incomparable spiritual loss” (161). Hence there are moral, social, and aesthetic reasons to reject the view, common in some atheist circles, that sufficiently enlightened individuals see the elimination of religion as a worthy social goal, that in a properly civilized social order, religion would be at best a historical curiosity.
Warnock acknowledges that the question of the social value of religion comes to the balance of goods and evils. Surely Warnock is correct to holds that, from this consequentialist perspective, religion can be a vital social good. However, there are familiar social consequences of religion that are not so salutary: religious bigotry and intolerance, mistreatment of women, opposition to science, general credulity, authoritarianism, and so on. But it is important to emphasize that, regardless of how the cost/benefit calculation runs, Warnock has hung her case for the social value of religion on entirely secular considerations. In proposing that the matter is to be decided on the character of the social consequences of religious belief, Warnock has asserted that the value of religion is wholly detached from the truth or rationality of the central theological claims of the major religions. On Warnock’s view, the content of religious beliefs, arguments, and commitments is irrelevant.
In fact, on Warnock’s view, religion can be highly socially valuable – and therefore worth sustaining - even if all distinctively religious claims are demonstrably false. Her defense of religion, then, has the same form as the defense we adults give of our practice of promoting among our children the belief in Santa Claus: It’s such a useful and comforting fiction that the belief ought to be promoted (or at least not denied), despite the fact that Santa does not exist. This is what Plato famously called a Noble Lie.
Given this, we must ask: Is Warnock’s defense a defense of religion? Or is it merely a defense of the idea that some people need the comforting fictions that religion provides in order to be good, responsible citizens?
Arguably a defense of religion along these latter lines evacuates religion of what does the inspiring and instructing, namely, the distinctively theological commitment to God. Put otherwise, a defense of religion which rests solely upon considerations regarding the social value of religious belief is ultimately no defense at all. If religious belief is to be defended, it must be understood in terms that religious believers can recognize. According to religious believers, their beliefs are not merely useful social instruments or efficient means for instilling good moral habits. They are rather commitments to very particular metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological views. These views provide the basis for the moral and communal practices among religious believers that Warnock finds socially valuable. But the social value of the practices provides no defense for the underlying views, all of which are, we contend, false. No discussion of the merits of religious practices and institutions should be permitted to evade the fundamental question of the truth of distinctively religious claims.
When we first read Warnock’s book, we puzzled over its title. Why would a book that sets out to defend the social value of religious belief be titled Dishonest to God? We wondered: Who is being dishonest? What could dishonesty to God be? In the light of subsequent reflection, though, we think we’ve come to understand the title perfectly.
April 25, 2011
Book Review: Tide Players by Jianying Zha
by Wayne Ferrier
The dichotomy of economic globalization and traditional culture is contributing to a worldwide identity crisis. But crisis and change often go hand-in-hand together. In China change is happening on an unprecedented scale. And, when the tide rushes in, as in all places, individuals rise to the challenge and play that tide. Fifty years of Soviet style communism has left a bad taste in China’s mouth, so it has turned its face to the West. But this isn’t a face that wants to be Western. It isn’t a blank slate either. It is a Chinese face and behind that face is a Chinese identity.
One of Mao’s little red children, who grew up in China and in the United States, is Jianying Zha, self-proclaimed Beijinger and New Yorker. She belongs to a generation that embraced democratic liberalization when China opened its doors to the West in the early 80s, and became disillusioned after Tiananmen Square. Zha received her BA from Peking University, and then applied to the University of South Carolina where she got her M.A. Later she got her M.Phil at Columbia University. Now Jianying Zha is an author, a writer, a media critic, and a China representative of the India China Institute. Her latest book is titled Tide Players published in the US by The New Press. Some of the chapters were previously published in the New Yorker.
While Tide Players is a collection of stories—stories of the entrepreneurs, the street revolutionaries, the elites, and the intellectuals who played the tide—Zha reflects, at the end of her work, that some philosophers and historians, such as Li Zehou and literary critic Liu Zaifu, have observed that attempts to bring sudden radical change in China has either resulted in tyranny or disaster. Zha is aware that China is too enormous in size, its numerous problems too complex, that incremental reform is more preferable right now rather than the instant change her own brother advocates. Her brother, Jianguo, spent several years in prison as a dissident and revolutionary. Zha acknowledges economic progress as the first step of reform, while individual freedom, social justice, and democratic liberalization will follow. Still she feels for her brother who, she once felt, threw his life away for a dream that couldn’t come true. She is comforted by her liberal friends, who have told her that it was people like her brother that set the parameters; people like Jianguo tested the water and alerted the rest what was too dangerous water.
Zha also bemoans what she sees as a lack of dialog between Chinese and American writers. She states that Americans fall into one of two schools of thought; those who fear China and those who are inspired by it. What we see in Tide Players is a China surfing economic materialism yet fearing the sharks who will steal away its soul in the process. Confucius was China's first great social critic. He did not refrain from life's pleasures; he sought balance between the extremes, and to avoid excess. His way of life was based on the golden mean of equilibrium. From beginning to the end in Tide Players, Zha weighs the pros and cons of everything she has witnessed and thought about. As Confucius is claimed to have said “Balance is the perfect state of still water. Let that be our model. It remains quiet within and is not disturbed on the surface” even as the tide rushes in.
After the Death of David Foster Wallace
by Robert P. Baird
In the end, Wallace’s body of work amounts to an extended philosophical experiment. Can “morally passionate, passionately moral” fiction help free us from the prisons we make? To judge solely by his suicide, the experiment would seem to have failed.
Of course Hallberg doesn’t end there; he goes on to say that “watching [Wallace] loosed one more time upon the fields of language, we’re apt to feel the way he felt at the end of his celebrated essay on Federer at Wimbledon: called to attention, called out of ourselves.” This is fine stuff, and credible: Hallberg is a serious and intelligent critic, and what he says about the fragments assembled into The Pale King fits the expectations established by Wallace’s earlier writing.
Still, it’s the earlier sentences that interest me more. In identifying a philosophical, even therapeutic aspiration in Wallace’s work, Hallberg is cashing out Wallace’s famous assertion that “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” Hallberg draws a line from Wallace’s art through his life to his death, a line we can trace with almost syllogistic precision: if Wallace’s life was the test of his art, and if his suicide marked a failure of his life, then so, too, must his death stand as a capital judgment on his art.
I admire this formula, even as I find myself troubled by it. I admire it because it lays out in especially stark terms a dilemma whose presence has imposed itself, often in unresolved and unsettling ways, on most of the reviews and reminiscences written in the runup to and aftermath of the publication of The Pale King. Hallberg’s great service is to name the question that all of us face in the wake of Wallace’s suicide: namely, how should his death affect the way we read his books?
It’s easy to smirk at this question, easy to take refuge in the old New Criticism and say that Hallberg’s got hold of the issue the wrong way around. After all, we don’t let it it affect our appreciation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to recall that Tennessee Williams choked to death on an eyedropper. We don’t let the knowledge that Kurt Gödel died of starvation arouse any reconsideration—besides, perhaps, a glib and guilty joke—of the Incompleteness Theorem. We all know that Hemingway, Woolf, and Berryman committed suicide; who, now, would judge any of their work diminished by that fact?
And yet while the line Hallberg draws between Wallace’s life, death, and art might rankle our critical sensibilities, there was a time—a long time, in fact—when such a connection would have seemed a truism. In Spirit in Ashes, the philosopher Edith Wyschograd describes the persistence of a centuries-long consensus about the meaning of death in the West. From Socrates to Kant, with significant detours through Christianity and possible extensions into existentialism, what Wyschogrod calls a “paradigm of authenticity” held that the mark of a good life was a good death. Within this paradigm, “The actions of a person’s last days are interpreted as the touchstone for determining his or her value as a moral being.” (It's for this reason, if you grew up Catholic, that you learned to ask Mary to pray for you at the hour of your death.)
What counted as a good death was subject to local variations, but Wyschogrod leans on Phillipe Ariès to argue that the core of the authenticity paradigm was a conviction that a good death was a “tamed death”—an experience of dying that was free of fear and anxiety. This was Socrates saying, in the Phaedo, that “the true disciple of philosophy…is ever pursuing death and dying; and if this is true, why, having had the desire of death all his life long, should he repine at the arrival of that which he has been always pursuing and desiring?” This is Epicurus, writing to Idomeneus on the day of his death, “My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could augment them. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which arises from the remembrance of our past conversations, counterbalances all these afflictions.”
The upshot of Spirit in Ashes is that we don’t generally think like this anymore. On Wyschogrod’s reading, the terrors of the twentieth century caused the thorough dismantling of the authenticity paradigm. Concentration camps, mass killings, and nuclear weapons made it not just impossible but unthinkable to calmly and rationally prepare for the moment of our passing.
There is, however, a decent case to be made that something like the authenticity paradigm survives in the way we talk about Wallace’s work in the aftermath of his suicide. “Something like”: I hedge because to get from Wyschogrod to Hallberg we have to give the screw another turn, to link death to life and then, further, life to art. But once we make that jump, once we admit the transitive property, it’s not hard to see how Hallberg’s reading fits the tradition Wyschogrod sketches.
The idea that Wallace’s art maintains a deep relation not just to his life but also to the manner of his death (and vice versa) is one that so far seems impossible for us to shake. Hallberg’s, while clearest, is hardly the only example of this tendency. You can sniff it in Lev Grossman’s claim, in Time, that the “formidable interpretive challenges [of Wallace’s work] have only been exacerbated by the complicated emotions surrounding Wallace's death.” You can hear it in Maria Bustillos’s suggestion that Wallace, a bit like Jesus, taught, suffered, and died for the idea that “those who are unsure of themselves and suspect themselves of the worst falseness and wrong, bad things are to be not only pitied but loved, identified with and known.” You can see it in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s admission that despite his desire “to resist romanticizing [Wallace’s] suicide” he is convinced that
there remains a sense in which artists do expose themselves to the torrents of their time, in a way that can't help but do damage, and there's nothing wrong with calling it noble, if they've done it in the service of something beautiful. Wallace paid a price for traveling so deep into himself…
Even Jonathan Franzen, who knew Wallace well, argues that the trouble his friend had with his writing was not incidental to his death:
Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him…he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death.
The New Critical refrain that the life is the life and the art is the art is usually good interpretative counsel. But the reasons why we’re so regularly tempted to blur our readings of Wallace the man and Wallace the work are not difficult to discern. Forget for a moment that Zadie Smith said he had no equal among living writers, that Lorin Stein said he “changed the way we write and read,” and that George Saunders called him “first among us. The most talented, most daring, most energetic and original, the funniest, the least inclined to rest on his laurels or believe all the praise.” Forget that Sullivan discerned in Wallace’s suicide not just a loss for his family, friends, and fans, but a loss for the entire English language. (“Here’s a thing that is hard to imagine: being so inventive a writer that when you die, the language is impoverished. That's what Wallace's suicide did, two and a half years ago. It wasn't just a sad thing, it was a blow.”)
Above all that, beyond all that, there was something else. Wallace belonged to that slim class of writers—Frank O’Hara, Annie Dillard, and Martin Amis are three more—who knew or discovered or learned how to project intimacy with a force that felt literally telepathic. Wallace called it peeling back his skull; through some dark magic he seemed able to climb in and describe the state of what we used to call our souls.
The effect is especially obvious in Wallace’s nonfiction, but it’s waiting for you in the fiction, too. At Wallace's memorial Saunders described it this way:
Something about the prose itself was inducing a special variety of openness that I might call terrified-tenderness: a sudden new awareness of what a fix we’re in on this earth, stuck in these bodies, with these minds. This alteration seemed more spiritual than aesthetic. I wasn’t just ‘reading a great story’ – what was happening was more primal and important: my mind was being altered in the direction of compassion, by a shock methodology that was, in its subject matter, actually very dark.
Wallace believed that one aspect of fiction’s magic was, as he told David Lipsky, its ability to capture “what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell ‘Another sensibility like mine exists.’ Something else feels this way to someone else.” (Of course, Wallace was too good a magician and too good a philosopher to believe his own illusions. He knew that “we all suffer alone in the real world," knew all too well that "true empathy’s impossible.”)
It was Wallace’s special gift—or, okay, one of about three dozen of his special gifts—that he could work this magic on people who generally considered themselves too sophisticated to fall for rhetorical tricks. He cultivated charm on the page, even as he recognized that his efforts could very quickly “become an exercise in trying to get the reader to like and admire [me] instead of an exercise in creative art.”
Whatever the dangers, the magic succeeded. Readers responded to Wallace in exactly the ways he wanted them to. They plied him with the kind of intense emotional allegiance usually reserved for the earnest young fans of movie stars and delivered an extravagant counterproof to James Woods’s bone-stupid assertion that “no one has ever claimed to be moved by him.” As Bustillos put it, “Wallace gave voice to the inner workings of ordinary human beings in a manner so winning and so truthful and forgiving as to make him seem a friend.”
When I first read him, I thought that here was exactly the writer I would be if only I were much smarter, and a much better writer, reading his more recent work I felt that David Foster Wallace was the person I would be if I were less intellectually lazy and more honest and conscientious, kinder and truer to myself.
If you’ve read anything about Wallace, you’ve heard similar things before. But usually lost in these discussions is the fact that Wallace himself was wary of the link between art and life that so many of his bereaved fans have tried to draw out. In his review of a Borges biography he took issue with “the idea…that we can’t correctly interpret a piece of verbal art unless we know the personal and/or psychological circumstances surrounding its creation.”
One trouble with making Wallace’s art answer to his life—and, even more problematically, to his death—is that we risk ignoring all the other things his work was about. A bigger danger is that each word he wrote starts to look like a symptom in need of diagnosis. Already it’s started happening. Already we've seen stories that once bewildered critics with their involutions and opacities spun into transparent allegories of Wallace’s depression and addictions. Already we've watched his carefully constructed halls of mirrors razed and rebuilt as glass cathedrals where each of us can bend a knee to the horror of his suffering.
Consider, for example, James Lasdun's review of The Pale King in The Guardian. Lasdun writes that “at a certain point it becomes impossible to resist the thought that under all the high talk about the place of boredom in modern life, what Wallace was really writing about was depression.” To support the point, Lasdun quotes this passage from the unfinished novel:
Ed Shackleford turns a page. Elpidia Carter turns a page. Ken Wax attaches a Memo 20 to a file. Anand Singh turns a page….Ken Wax turns a page. David Cusk turns a page. Lane Dean Jr rounds his lips and breathes deeply in and out like that and bends to a new file. Ken Wax turns a page…
Lasdun’s interpretation of boredom as depression sounds plausible until we remember that Wallace, in Infinite Jest, was careful to distinguish the kind of vague anhedonia that characterized “the lively arts of the millenial U.S.A.” from the kind of depression that kills people. Here's how Wallace described the latter:
It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it…a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence…a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels…an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self.
It has fallen, somewhat oddly, to the person in perhaps the best position to prove the link between Wallace’s art and his death to argue most strenuously against it. Wallace’s widow, the artist Karen Green, told The Guardian recently that her fear for The Pale King is that it will be read as an extended suicide note. She explicitly rejected the notion that Wallace’s art and his depression shared a common source: “People don't understand how ill he was. It was a monster that just ate him up. And at that point everything was secondary to the illness. Not just writing. Everything else: food, love, shelter…”
I’m not suggesting, and I doubt Green is either, that we can or should stop asking questions about depression and suicide when we talk about Wallace. The point is that we have a choice about where to look for answers. As Henry James wrote in “The Death of a Lion,”
The artist’s life’s his work, and this is the place to observe him. What he has to tell us he tells us with this perfection.…It’s the course to which the artist himself at every step, and with such pathetic confidence, refers us.
By yielding to the “vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz” that Wallace mocked in Infinite Jest, by guessing at the kind and quality of his addictions, by raiding his archives for the secrets of his depression, we end up denying him his own best commentary on his suffering. We let his suicide be his last and loudest word.
But can’t we repay his confidence better than that? The least we can do is try.
April 04, 2011
Clifford and James on Evidence and Belief
William Kingdon Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief” and Willam James’s “The Will to Believe” are yoked together in the story of philosophy. The two essays are taken as the classic starting points for reflection on the norms governing responsible belief. Clifford captures his view, evidentialism, with the stark pronouncement that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Clifford, thus, stands as the paragon of intellectual honesty; he follows the arguments where they lead, and spurns comforting fictions. In contrast, James’s doctrine of the will-to-believe is summarized by his claim that “our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds.” James offers a defense of the role of the sentiments in intellectual life; he stands as the Romantic resistance to the demands of cold-blooded reason, he defends belief in the face of withering skepticism. Clifford and James are iconically opposed.
Clifford’s case is made primarily on the basis of a series of examples. The most powerful of them involves a ship owner who believes contrary to his evidence that his ship is seaworthy. The ship owner suppresses his doubts about his vessel, and sends it out to sea, full of emigrants bound for a new land; he then collects the insurance money when it sinks. Surely this man is blameworthy. But what if the ship had not gone down? What if the emigrants got to their destination safely? Would that bit of good luck diminish the guilt of the shipowner? Clifford answers, “Not one jot.” Why? Because the question of concerning the propriety of the owner’s belief does not rest on whether the emigrants were harmed, but on whether he “had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him.” Clifford holds that “It is never lawful to stifle a doubt.”
William James acknowledges that this evidentialist rule is generally sound, but he holds that there are exceptions, specifically in matters of the heart. James considers the following scenario. A young man wants to ask a young woman out for a date. He is unsure that she will accept, as he does not have evidence that she likes him. What is he to do? James proposes one option: “if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have some objective evidence, until you have done something apt . . . ten to one your liking never comes.” Such an option is unacceptable, both to the young man and to the young woman. “How many women’s hearts are vanquished by the mere sanguine insistence of some man that they must love him!” James proposes another option, one that calls for an ungrounded commitment; so the young man’s “faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification. . . [F]aith in the fact can help create the fact.”
Given this, it is easy to see why Clifford and James are treated as philosophical antagonists. One pressing question is how practicable the two views really are. On the one hand, it might seem that Clifford’s evidentialism is far too demanding. Clifford himself was aware of this concern, as he worries that his view flirts with an untenable skepticism. He argues that he is no skeptic, yet this protest seems flimsy; in any case, James certainly takes Clifford to be a skeptic.
On the other hand, James’s proposal raises practical difficulties of its own. One can ask whether it is wise to have confidence in beliefs when there is no evidence to support them. James sees the danger in rejecting evidentialism. He holds that when properly deployed, the will-to-believe is not self-confidence or wishful thinking run amok. The question then is what the conditions for the proper deployment of the will-to-believe are. As Clifford emphasizes, having an exaggerated degree of confidence in one’s beliefs is most often a vice, not a virtue.
The main question in the dispute, though, concerns the philosophical concern driving both views: religious belief. Both philosophers agree that the traditional arguments for God’s existence fail. Both agree that the evidence for God is weak, and certainly not sufficient to justify religious belief. They disagree on the question of whether religious belief, given the lack of evidence for it, is ever intellectually responsible.
Clifford’s case against religious belief proceeds along two lines. First, Clifford argues that because the evidence is not sufficient to show that belief in God is true, one should not believe. That’s just evidentialism. Second, Clifford argues that the evidence also shows that belief in God encourages other intellectual and moral failures. According to Clifford, religious belief is not an isolated phenomenon, a one-off case of epistemic irresponsibility. On the contrary, Clifford holds that religious belief brings with it a host of other intellectual vices of credulity.
Alternately, James’s will-to-believe doctrine is committed to the proposition that religious belief may be responsibly held. Yet he does not give the religious believer carte blanche to believe at will whatever proposition that favor. Rather, James contends that religious belief of only a very specific kind of allowable. To be more specific, James argues that the most one is justified in adopting is what he calls the “religious hypothesis.”
James holds that because the arguments for the existence of the traditional God fail, the traditional conception of God fails as well. Accordingly, in James’s hands, religious belief is reconstructed. The religious hypothesis is less a view about God’s nature and existence, and more a view about the place of hope in our lives. That is, James’s strategy for defending religious belief is simply to transform it into something else, something less theological. And so, according to James, religious belief is not about God, Jesus, Heaven, Hell, angels, immortality, souls, or miracles. It rather is simply the belief that “the more eternal things are best.” This is the belief that the will-to-believe doctrine aspires to defend.
The question for traditional religious believers, of course, is whether James is really an ally at all. The Jamesian argument seems an overt bait-and-switch; he seems to have defended religious belief by distorting it into something else. Arguably, Jamesian reconstructed religious belief is not religious belief at all. Indeed, it seems that Jamesian religious belief is in the end no different from Cliffordian non-belief. And so the iconic opposition between Clifford and James admits of reconciliation.
February 14, 2011
Re-Thinking the Ethics of Stem Cell Research
by Tauriq Moosa
There is always the danger of dogmatism lurking within any collection of ideas. A collection of ideas tied together by a singular focus tends to be called an argument. However, it is often refreshing to have such bundles of ideas untethered and scattered after being cut by a sharper focus. It is, I would like to think, the mark of good critical analysis that one is self-critical, too; that you find an argument that you hold destroyed in order to clear the way for a more robust one.
I recently had such an experience regarding the ethics of human embryonic stem cell (HESC) research. Often we secularists, under some weird broad canvas, regard opponents to things like abortion, HESC research and euthanasia as one large pile of dogmatic reactionaries. And no wonder, considering their spokespeople are often dogmatic religious reactionaries who get given airtime on popular news-sources.
But so often forgotten are careful arguments against the typical liberal secularist view that euthanasia and HESC research is not immoral. Consider the insightful abortion debate between two non-believers, Richard Carrier and Jennifer Roth; there we have good arguments instead of speaking from the knee as many people, on both sides, are prone to do in these discussions. It should be immediately apparent that we ought not to perceive ‘our’ side as the sober, good and right, whilst anyone who disagrees as merely fanatical.
To understand the usual arguments for stem-cell research, this quick clip by Sam Harris at Beyond Belief ’06 is an excellent quick overview. But even if you don’t watch it, the arguments will come up during the post.
My experience of this sudden realisation of (possibly) holding fallacious views was through an article by Don Marquis. Professor Marquis is renowned for an article defending a secular argument for why abortion is immoral (see references). However, I encountered him after reading his, again, secular argument against HESC research.
Marquis opposes those who defend HERC research on the grounds that all religious arguments are by nature bad; that the embryos are not persons, are not morally worth more than, to use one of Sam Harris’ emotive but true examples, a girl with spinal-cord injury. Considering the enormous – possible – benefits of further research into this promising field, possibly curing people suffering all manner of ailments, we should legalise HESC research; otherwise we are simply pandering to silly metaphysical-theological arguments. Marquis proceeds to critique all such arguments.
Marquis notes: “the arguments [in HERC research] that are offered are typically presented in a cursory way. Indeed, often they are more suggested than presented. Arguments that deserve critical scrutiny are quickly set out as if any rational reader would regard them as obviously sound.”
To be fair, he also rightfully dismisses religious arguments for banning HERC research: “in the absence of a great deal of convincing argument that has not yet seen the light of day, particular religious considerations cannot establish the wrongness of HESC research.” He considers religious claims merely “comforting opinions” – an excellent term – like preferences of food or furniture. Comforting preferences, however, are not binding on anyone (including the person herself), which means we have no reason to take such arguments seriously. But, Marquis notes, because religious moral arguments are so weak, it has given the illusion that HERC research defenders need only “wave at some nonreligious arguments” to defend their view.
Contrasting “comforting opinions”, which masquerade as moral argument, is the idea of complete freedom in scientific research. Yet, Professor Marquis thinks this is also a myopic endorsement. Marquis notes that “untrammelled freedom in scientific research” is dangerous. The term is not Marquis' but is presented and supported by some, like Paul Kurtz. All manner of immoral actions could be justified in the name of “untrammelled freedom”, however. Marquis notes, for example, the Tuskagee Study or the Willowbrook experiments. Obviously, the wonderful Professor Kurtz would not support such incidents – but his freedom is not licence. “Untrammelled” is also unhelpful. The opposite of censorship is not complete lack of boundaries but rationally considered ones.
Marquis then delves into the meat of the argument. Those who watched the short Harris clip will recall these arguments.
1. The Beneficence Argument
The major argument to support HESC research is the enormous benefits it might have for those suffering from spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer’s disease, and so on. The University of Michigan has a helpful FAQ on this; it also says:
Research with embryonic stem cells may lead to new, more effective treatments for serious human ailments and alleviate the suffering of thousands of people. Diseases such as juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart failure and spinal cord injuries are examples.
But why do we need HESC for this? What makes them so ‘special’, to use a pejorative term. To quote again from the UM website:
- They can develop into any cell type in the body.
- They can form unlimited quantities of any cell type in the body.
- They will help us understand inherited diseases by allowing us to study human cells bearing the exact genetic defects that cause disease in patients.
- They will allow us to discover safer and more effective drugs by making it easier to screen drug candidates.
If it will save so many lives and aid in the future, what opposition could Marquis possibly have which is not religious?
Marquis reiterates the problems of the Tusgakee and Willowbrook experiments by showing that no matter the benefits, there is a consensus amongst bioethicists and, indeed, the public, that there is a need to respect human subjects for any experiment. Informed consent is sometimes referred to as the essential focus of most bioethics.
Basically, we can counter the beneficence argument by asking how much: If you could save every liver cancer patient in the world by experimenting ‘unethically’ with children – that is without their or their parents consent – would you do so? Informing them would counter the research – say you need them for monitoring or some such affair that requires no awareness of the experiments you are doing. There are excellent reasons why even this stripped utilitarian argument does not work; but that is Marquis’ point.
The beneficence argument also assumes that embryos are not persons with moral concerns in the first instance. That is, the ethics of HESC research is not answered by simply saying “the benefits will be great.” You must still say why possibly violating the essential cornerstone of bioethics, informed consent, is allowed in this instance. The beneficence argument can only help after establishing the embryos are not moral persons.
2. The Case for Qualified Respect for Human Subjects
Of course, for many, the answer appears obvious: We cannot obtain consent from embryos because they are not moral agents. There is nothing about them – a CNS, consciousness, etc. – which is worth a moral concern. We might as well care about the moral agency of rocks.
Marquis major counter to this, which I think is flawed, is to contrast this with infants. Marquis notes: “Plainly this [argument] will not work, since it is agreed by all decent people that scientific research that involves the destruction of two-year-olds is immoral, even though two-year-olds are not moral agents.” He notes that the mentally-retarded children in the Willowbrook experiments where just such cases.
The appeal to “all decent people” is a dubious move. This rhetorical device means that if you disagree, you are not a decent person. It immediately prevents someone from even formulating a case for thinking “the destruction of two-year-olds” is not immoral.
Never considering myself a decent person, anyway, I feel no need to automatically group myself with “decent people” who think babies should not be killed. I fully support infanticide, in those circumstances where it is agreed upon by parents, doctors and if it is for the benefit of the baby. If it makes me "indecent" to think that the unnecessary suffering of any being, regardless of age or species, should be shortened if possible, if warranted, when there is no chance of recovery, and so on, then so be it.
I don’t agree with Marquis here. Marquis says that the reasons for disqualifying embryos from moral agency is because they are not beings that can respond or be part of a rational framework of morality. They have no characteristics that mark them off as entities that can benefit, aside from potentiality (rightfully dismissed by Marquis and most ethicists as bad arguments. We’ll examine it shortly). Yet, infants do have some characteristics that embryos do not: most importantly their ability to suffer or their sentience. Now this is not the space to argue for suffering being the central concern of ethical thinking, but to me, I have yet to see a better case for what ethical thinking should be about (I am not a promoter of utility, but probably a negative utilitarian. For those interested in comprehensive thought-experiments to undermine negative utilitarianism, start with The Pinprick Argument).
Marquis does not respond to such claims. Indeed, the fact is I am willing to say infants should be killed (in specific circumstances, obviously), as I do for people in persistent-vegetative-states or irreversible comas. Thus, my consistency has me defend HESC research and the destruction of embryos.
3. The Capacity for Sentience/Consciousness: Corpses and Robots
Some readers might say it is the capacity for consciousness not sentience that matters. Marquis of course easily dismisses such arguments by pointing to people who are temporarily unconscious or asleep. But I think this is not looked at thoroughly.
Critics respond to such claims by saying if subjects had the capacity in the past to be conscious, a move made by, for example, Michael Tooley, then we ought to treat them as limited moral agents. They are therefore not like embryos because they had consciousness in the past. But Marquis notes: Why can’t we say it is future consciousness that matters? What’s so special about past consciousness? Indeed, if consciousness is what matters, then surely the fact that something will be conscious in the future matters more than people who were conscious in the past, but perhaps have minimal chance of recovery?
I’m uncertain about this argument, however. If we were concerned about future consciousness, or even sentience, then it means we ought all to be breeding to bring that future moral agency into existence. But that would leave little time for anything else and would of course lead to severe overpopulation and a greater reduction in resources, and so on. It is simply absurd to think we ought to promote future consciousness. Indeed I think most potentiality arguments are bad, since all sorts of potential situations could arise but proponents merely and arbitrarily focus on one specific future event that might arise (for example, the arrival of consciousness, sentience, etc.). We also have the potential to die, to become corpses, we have the potential to have our organs replaced by unbreakable robot parts - but should we treat each other as corpses or robots? Of course not. (Think of ages differences: If they consented or acted autonomously, why do we prevent children from buying alcohol, smoking, etc., even though they have the potential to be 18 years old? We treat them according to their ages, not their potential ages.)
4. The “Individual” Argument
Another problem, which applies equally to those who assert the soul or moral agency begins at the moment of conception, is the idea of the individual. That is, the embryo is not yet an individual to whom moral agency can apply. By individual, Carol Tauer, Ronald Green and others means that it lacks “developmental individuation”. Yet, for Marquis this won’t do since you can “count” the embryos. This is of course quickly countered by talking about “twinning”, but even this won’t do for Marquis because the two, or more, further individuals had to come from one! Therefore, just because there is a possibility of twinning doesn’t mean there isn’t an individual to begin with. There has to be.
Marquis is right to say appeals to individuals will not work here. I also think it is a novel response to the idea of twinning countering the claims of moral agency. I’m not completely satisfied with it, but I do like it as a refreshing take on the appeal that moral agency applies only to the individual. To reiterate: He agrees with the appeal but doesn’t think it succeeds because “an individual” does exist before twinning.
5. The Right Environment for Development of Persons
Marquis scrutinises the respect for human subjects (RHS) principle, in research ethics, throughout his article. RHS is about the ethical standards or principles or duties used when dealing with human persons as subjects for scientific experimentation. For example, the most important might be informed consent.
He agrees that we do have duties to respect the subjects. But he is taking on the idea that the RHS principle does not apply to embryos. For example, he cites one claim for embryo destruction.
If an embryo is maintained outside a woman’s body and those who provided the gametes for it have not decided to permit its development in a womb, it is not effectively a state in the early development of a person. (Meyer and Nelson, as cited in Marquis, 2007)
Therefore, it is not morally wrong because the environment is such that an embryo cannot develop into a person. Yet Marquis brings the babies back: If we put infants into such environments, would we allow experimentation? If an abandoned infant was dumped, it is not in a place where it is possible to develop into a person (it will eventually die without aid) – does that mean we are allowed to experiment with it?
But this again conflates the idea of sentience. If we care about unnecessary suffering, and if we are able to avoid it by not experimenting with the infants, we ought not to do so. Also, researchers cannot be in an environment where the infant can’t develop into a person, since the researchers by definition are catalysts to bringing the infant out of such a state. For example, if a researcher found a baby in a dumpster, the researcher’s presence has automatically negated that environment as a space in which the infant can’t develop into a person because the researcher is now an added causal agent who can remove the infant. That is, by simply being aware of the infant’s condition, the environment is no longer one where the infant cannot develop into a person.
Embryos however cannot, when put into certain states, develop into a person. Even with researchers there the embryos are beyond personhood acquisition.
There are further arguments but I don’t have the space to continue. This seems an interesting and novel way to engage with the debate for HESC research. Yet, as I’ve highlighted, there are numerous problems with it. Perhaps operating under the assumption, as I have been, that reduction of suffering of sentient beings is most important (cf. Singer’s equal consideration of interests), is a mistake – but Marquis has not answered these claims. Given, also, that I am consistently in favour of killing being regardless of age or species, when done in specific circumstances, especially for that being’s benefit (even better if that being has autonomously asked for it), I also can’t see how my view is inconsistent with the destruction of embryos.
Furthermore, Marquis must note that given any number of factors, any cell of our body with, say, a nucleus could be a potential person. Every time we touch another person, put on a clothes, scratch our skin, we are committing, in Sam Harris’ words: genocide. This is nonsense of course.
Marquis has written a clear survey but I do not think it accomplished what he wished it to. If he’s goal was for us to radically rethink the ethics of HESC research, he has not done so. If, however, it was to sharpen our arguments on better counter-claims, then he has more than succeeded in taking arguments, or at least mine, further. And that is always a benefit.
References for Marquis' work:
‘Why Abortion is Immoral’ The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86, No. 4. (Apr., 1989), pp. 183-202
'Stem Cell Research: The Failure of Bioethics', in Science and Ethics: Can Science Help Us Make Wise Moral Judgments?, ed. by Paul Kurtz and David Koepsell (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007).
February 07, 2011
Accommodationism and Atheism
by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Our book Reasonable Atheism does not publish until April, yet we have already been charged with
accommodationism, the cardinal sin amongst so-called New Atheists. The charge derives mainly from the subtitle of our book, “a moral case for respectful disbelief.” Our offense consists in embracing idea that atheists owe to religious believers anything like respect. The accusation runs roughly as follows: “Respect” is merely a euphemism for soft-pedaling one’s criticisms of religion; but religion is a force of great evil, and thus must be fought with unmitigated vigor. Atheist calls for respect in dealing with religion simply reflect a failure of nerve, and must be called out. Anything less than an intellectual total war on religion is capitulation to, and thus complicity with, irrationality.
In our case, the charge of accommodationism as a failure of critical nerve is misplaced; anyone who actually reads our book will find that we pull no punches. But we also think that, as it is commonly employed in atheist circles, the idea of accommodationism involves a conflation between two kinds of evaluation which should be kept distinct. Some clarification is in order.
When it is aimed at rational persuasion, argumentation has two closely related objectives. The first is the obvious aim of demonstrating that the view that one favors is true. We engage in argument in order to make explicit the grounds upon which we base our beliefs; in making them believe explicit, we simultaneously provide support for our beliefs. The second aim of argumentation is easily overlooked. When we argue, we also engage in a diagnostic project. We aim not only to demonstrate the truth of our own view; we additionally endeavor to understand how our opponent arrived at her view, how she conceives of the relation between her view and her evidence. Put another way, in argumentation, we aim to discover where our opponent has gone wrong. Being able to identify others’ errors is often a crucial part of persuading them to change their views. Furthermore, being able to diagnose our opponents’ mistakes is intimately related to fully grasping our own views. Knowing an issue means not only knowing the right answers, but also where the wrong turns are. As Mill observed, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”
This dual-aspiration of argumentation maps on to the elementary distinction in epistemology between truth and justification. Consider: One can believe what is true and have good reasons for believing as one does; one can believe what is true on the basis of bad reasons; one can believe what is false, but on the basis of good reasons; and one can believe what is false for bad reasons. It is by means of the distinction between what is true and the quality of one’s reasons that we are able to distinguish between, say, knowing that Kennedy died in 1963 and correctly guessing that he did. This distinction also enables us to make sense of the claim that, despite getting nearly everything wrong, Aristotle was a great mind.
This distinction also enables us to recognize that there are two distinct kinds of epistemic evaluation: belief-evaluation and believer-evaluation. Evaluating beliefs is a matter of seeing what evidence there is for holding them. Evaluating believers is a matter of examining whether the evidence someone has indeed supports the belief he or she holds (and if so, to what extent). It makes perfect sense to say that Aristotle’s physics is wrong (a belief evaluation), even though he was a brilliant natural scientist (a believer evaluation). Given the evidence he had and the tools at his disposal for gathering evidence, Aristotle was highly justified in holding his (false) beliefs. He was entirely wrong, yet frighteningly smart.
These distinctions help us to see that the diagnostic ambition of argumentation involves the attempt to devise a responsible believer evaluation of one’s interlocutor. Part of what is involved in the attempt to rationally persuade someone is to try to disclose what evidence he has and how he sees his evidence as providing support for his view. In doing this, we may discover that he has an insufficient conception of what evidence there is; or maybe he has misinterpreted the evidence; or maybe he has simply drawn the wrong conclusion from a proper understanding of the evidence; and so on. This endeavor makes the difference between the project of rationally persuading an interlocutor and simply persuading them; it also makes the difference between rational persuasion and browbeating.
This much is elementary. Yet the distinction between being wrong and being stupid is essential to our cognitive lives. We affirm in Reasonable Atheism that we believe that distinctively religious beliefs are false, and that religious believers are therefore wrong. Yet having false beliefs does not make one stupid; it simply makes one wrong. The stupid person is one who believes against what he takes to be evidence. And, as it turns out, there are very few stupid people. Yet there is a lot of false believing going on; in fact, we hold that in matters of religion, there is a lot of belief in what is demonstrably and obviously false. What could explain this?
The answer is straightforward. Religious believers have an inflated sense of the strength of the evidence in support of their view and a correspondingly deflated estimation of the power of atheist arguments. It is worth noting that this kind of distortion is precisely what one should expect in a society that fits the description offered by the New Atheists. They say, correctly, that our society is infused with religiosity and superstition, that religion “poisons everything” and amounts to a collective delusion. Given this, it is no mystery why religious belief is so widespread and persistent. The social ubiquity of religiosity causes individuals to overestimate the strength of the case for religion.
It is important to note that so far, we are very much in agreement with the New Atheists. Most religious claims are demonstrably false, and religion’s cultural influences have distorting effects on how believers assess the evidence. The religiosity of the background culture explains the persistence of religious belief.
But once this kind of explanation of the persistence of religious belief is adopted, the charge of accommodationism, as it is typically wielded, is rendered facile. One can wholeheartedly and unequivocally deny the truth of the religious believer’s commitments without thereby impugning his integrity as a cognitive agent. The claim that religious believers deserve respect, therefore, need not entail any degree of positive regard for religious belief; the call for respect rather is a call to respect religious believers. And respecting religious believers qua believers involves adopting the working presumption that, though they are mistaken and perhaps obviously so, they are nonetheless not stupid; instead, they are mistaken about what evidence there is and what weight it has.
The proper response to this state of affairs is to address religious believers as fellow rational agents, to elicit from them their best arguments and their conception of what evidence there is, and to make a case for one’s own view. Correspondingly, it is foolish to begin with an effort to discredit the intellects of religious believers or to diagnose them as benighted, foolish, and intellectually cowardly. To be sure, there are plenty of religious believers who fit these descriptions. But there are plenty of atheists who do too. It is here we part ways with the New Atheists, as what makes one a fool is not what one believes, but rather how one’s beliefs are related to one’s evidence.
A further point follows. Part of what fuels the charge of accommodationism is the view that religious believers should be treated with contempt. The view has it that those who are contemptible are not worthy of respect. This seems true as far as it goes. But notice that to hold a person in contempt is to ascribe to him a capacity for responsibility. Accordingly, we do not hold the mentally deranged in contempt for their delusional beliefs; rather, we see their beliefs as symptoms of their illness. To see religious believers as proper objects of contempt, then, is to see them as people who should know better than to believe as they do. It is hence to see them as wrong but, importantly, not stupid. Thus it is a confusion to regard religious believers as both contemptible and cognitively beyond-the-pale. Atheists must decide whether to proceed as if religious belief is a kind of mental disability or rather an error. If we choose the former, it is a mistake to see religious belief as a failure of intellectual responsibility; if we choose the latter, we must engage with religious believers in a way which manifests a proper regard for their cognitive capacities, and accordingly seeks to hear and address their best reasons and arguments. In Reasonable Atheism, we take this latter path. If this amounts to accommodationism, then atheists should be accommodationists. We, at least, will gladly accept the term.
December 27, 2010
Spark Gaps and Circuits: Probing the holes in Fiction
Writers are risk-averse. Necessarily so, because writing is really a sort of willful blindness, each sentence depending on all the ones preceding it, the way digging a tunnel depends on each shovel scoop. Experimentation is potentially catastrophic (or worse, embarrassing). With the exception of a few scurries into modernism and postmodernism prose has barely evolved since Charles Dickens’ era, at least compared with its poetic and visual counterparts. The reason for this is partly that writing is intelligible on a granular level; word for word, there is far less room for ambiguity between words than brushstrokes on a painting. A word that isn’t understood is moot; like a blockage in the aforementioned tunnel. That goes double for syntax. A reader can endure a fair amount of acrobatics for a short duration, like a poem, but kicking through 75,000 words of strange… is difficult. Good writing is clear, concise and almost always formally conventional, that is, on the page. Drafting and re-writing do, in theory, let an author step back and intervene in a more architectural manner, but such interventions are powerful and jarring and are used sparingly, often only in the most dire of circumstances. Drafting is more akin to buttressing than transmutation. Shifting tense, or modes of narration (from a first-person “I” to an omniscient third-person, for example) can easily collapse a text. Yet as rigid a channel as prose writing may be, there are a few zones of complete ambiguity in a piece of prose, which have become the site of a rich, strange and evolving alchemy.
Readers of unsolicited texts –‘ slush piles’ in publishing industry argot – develop an uncanny ability to identify monstrous prose from a mere glance. Some of this is obvious: choosing a quirky font, for example, is never a good sign; but there are other more subtle queues. A series of monotonously sized paragraphs marching down the page is an unambiguous tell that something has been written by a rank amateur. Paragraph breaks may not have semantic content, but they contribute something tangible to a text. Same goes for any other whitespace. An author who doesn’t manipulate his or her spaces is likely not paying much attention to anything else in his or her prose. But this suggests something else as well. Absence of text may not ‘say’ something but it does do something.
The paragraph break is probably smallest unit of absence in a prose text. Words and sentences map onto reality pretty well, since, for the most part one’s internal monologue seems to consist of words and sentences – or at least sentence fragments, and it is easy to imagine punctuation marks as pauses for breath, a querulous chirp, or sudden spurt of rage; but a paragraph is a strange and unnatural thing. It is an artificial break; a gap in what should be a continuous feed of chatter from the brain. Higher-orders of division are more peculiar still – sections, chapters, books, volumes and sets – some are vestiges of the printer’s trade, others evolved from older forms, but all share one quality: they interrupt text, break it into a segment, and by doing so delineate a beginning and an end to a discrete unit of information; or to put it another way, they force a feed of information into a rigid form.
Captured, text circulates: it has a beginning, an end, and, ostensibly, a way to reel back to the beginning all over again.
The larger the gap, or to put it another way, the more of an impediment to the reader an interruption becomes – ranging from a few milliseconds flex of one’s ocular muscle through a line of blank space, to closing a book and (perhaps) starting over – the stronger the circulation. Within a text, each a paragraph break transfers momentum, a quantum of flexion, almost like a heartbeat. Alone, this is meaningless, but as paragraphs accrete, they develop a rhythm, one that a skilled operator can use to modulate the momentum of a piece of writing, or even alter its meaning.
A slightly larger gap – the double space break – is “big” enough that it is often used to mark the passage of time and space, so a reader isn’t forced to slog through the traffic en route to dénouement, for example. Here the heartbeat becomes something a little larger, a more deliberate interruption, with a beginning and end that is easier to notice on the page: a shock. The asterisk, a larger (or perhaps more accurately, a starker) impediment creates a more jarring gap than a mere blank space, a longer leap through time and space, or a more poignant sudden precipitation of a cluster of thoughts. Likewise, being forced to begin a new chapter, book or volume is starker still. In each space, the reader is asked to project all of the information that he or she has previously accreted into the gap, to fill that chasm with all that preceded it, devour and digest it, and then tackle the text anew.
Clarice Lispector's (1964) The Passion of G.H. takes this moment of repose and magnifies it. She begins each chapter by repeating the last sentence (or sometimes just the last sentence fragment) from the preceding chapter, and places it into a new context: a mnemonic that sharply intensifies the sense of transmission between chunks of text, in effect, yanking the accretion forwards, and hurtling the text along. The Passion of G.H. forms a circuit between its beginning and end – “I keep looking, looking. Trying to understand. Trying to give what I have gone through to someone else, and I don’t know who, but I don’t want to be alone with that experience;” (3) and “[t]he world interdepended with me—that was the confidence I had reached: the world interdepended with me, and I am not understanding what I say, never! never again shall I understand what I saw… (173).” Lispector’s text is more than blind projection, it is as if a transmission is being accelerated through a series of spark gaps, amplified, intensified, until the beginning collides with the end.
These metaphoric collisions can be strong enough to actually dismantle time and space. Robert Coover’s short story, “The Babysitter” from Pricksongs and Descants (1969) amplifies its transmission even more intensely than Lispector, decoupling a story from time and space entirely using small, jagged paragraphs (broken apart with astrices) that read like TV channels being changed – you can almost hear sputter of static in-between – to probe multiple timelines and points of view (a teenage babysitter, her boyfriend, her young charge, and his predatory father): A crisis averted. A crisis occurs. A crisis is about to occur. All these things happen simultaneously, everywhere and nowhere all at once. Causality, time and space are splayed open, rendered meaningless through duplication and re-deployment. Coover’s text no longer ‘reads’ linear, it is almost a cubist perspective of a story; it reads like a grid.
Imagining a text like Coover’s unraveling in a grid implies that there would be a space for it to unravel onto (or perhaps into). And in a way there is. Reading can be imagined as something of a spatial experience, in that text consists of a push-pull between three dimensions: the text on the page, the author, and the reader. Czar Gutierrez, a young Peruvian poet turned novelist, manages to actually enter this fictive plane and use it to toss and turn his subject matter, inspired by the World Trade Center, not only in space, and time but also abstract metaphor, technological data and in the public eye.
In 80M84RD3R0 (2008), the first chapters of which appear in translation in the current issue of NY Tyrant magazine, Gutierrez tears apart his paragraphs and sentences. He uses bullets, subheads, numerals, capitalization, and lists to typographically rend (and contain) his subject, then grounds it by repeating imagery from startling perspectives. Within three pages (that is two chapters, and 11 ‘tempos’) knees spread apart become towers, semen trickling down a thigh becomes a jet contrail that crosses another and suddenly explodes into the realm of pure physics, an event which is being observed and recorded by satellite, and the perspective is plunged back into pure sensory experience, into meaninglessness and finally into nothing at all. The last two “tempos” read: “10. I WANT TO WEAVE A NET with my bones but I end up converted into a deformed polar icecap, into a poem covered in moss, crushed in its edges, burned at its core, bathed by the silent and spectral and cathodic rain of a television without weather that, as it feeds me, converts me into plasma. //11S. FOREVER.” Of course, Gutierrez is a noted poet and DJ, and though he calls 80M84RD3R0 a novel, if there is a limit to how much experimentation a piece of prose can bear and remain a piece of prose, he is certainly pressing upon against it, perhaps pushing past it and approaching the threshold of a new, more intoxicating form.
November 08, 2010
Going places, seeing things, writing back
Nigerians have been migrating to Britain for several decades. There was a wave of migration starting around the 1930s/1940s, which has continued more or less steadily since then, driven by a quest for education, and for a better life. The outflow to America followed that of Britain, but is today a significant one as well.
In light of this, the question pops up: Why would one be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of non-fiction narratives written by Nigerians - and Africans generally - about their travel experiences abroad (Europe and America)?
Notice I specifically mention “non-fiction”. The fiction of the immigrant experience is alive and well. Over the last decade or so it has burgeoned into a major subset of contemporary literature. Writing last month in Newsweek, Jennie Yabroff, in an article on Ethiopian novelist Dinaw Mengistu noted that this is “a time when some of [America’s] most powerful, and popular, stories are narrated by foreigners...”
Ike Oguine’s A Squatter’s Tale readily comes to mind; the tale of a transplanted Nigerian adrift in his new world (America). Chimamanda Adichie’s stories also; of Nigerians getting their things and leaving (to paraphrase Dambudzo Marechera) for America, to stake a claim to what often turns out to be no more than a stale slice of an overvalued Dream.
It‘s the same in England: countless stories of immigrants negotiating language and culture differences as they attempt to settle to British life. The space between Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners (1956) and Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2009) is far from sparsely populated.
But non-fiction remains largely unexplored territory. Where are the books in which African travellers record their impressions and experiences, in the same manner in which European and American writers have built up a genre of non-fiction (travelogue/cultural observations) books about Africa?
The reason for this may be obvious: unlike the white man who came to Africa as Conqueror, the African often went in the other direction bound in what one might call a capsule of diminished privilege, which leaves little room for the sort of deliberate, painstaking accretion of material that underpins any serious non-fiction project.
It is easier, it seems, to turn to the Imagination - arguably the spine of the Fictional Narrative - and generously employ the permission it grants fiction writers to take maximum creative license with material from reality.
Non-fiction books, it appears, are hardly ever recorded on a whim. They are often Deliberate Projects, in which the writer sets forth specifically to absorb and accumulate stories and images and impressions and arguments and counter-arguments for the book. Africans travelling abroad rarely get that privilege it seems. The reasons for leaving home are more often than underpinned by Compulsion (the slave trade centuries ago, or exile today) or an aspiration for betterment – academic degrees, better jobs and more comfortable lives.
As things stand Compulsion leaves little room for any significant creative undertaking, and even when it does, Fiction greedily claims the space, perhaps because it provides the sort of escape hatch (from an uncomfortable Reality) that non-fiction could never hope to provide.
Two or so years ago Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, already in his late seventies, set out to visit half a dozen countries in Africa. His mission, to compile material for a new book on traditional religious beliefs on the continent. He must have spent no more than a few months in total – but has gone ahead to write a book that will, by virtue of its author and subject, automatically take a place of importance in any Serious Conversation concerning literature about Africa.
So Naipaul comes to Africa to write about Africa. Now let’s ask ourselves this question: what is the likelihood of an important African writer attempting that Naipaulian task, but with a Western setting/subject: setting forth on a journey to explore and write about, say blighted English towns (or, to put it in another way, the disturbing blighted-ness of significant swathes of England), or the unprepossessing underbelly of America’s creaking Capitalist Machine.
Not likely to happen, one imagines. I wonder why? Might it be partly because the English, or Americans would not be interested in having an outsider tell them about themselves in anything other than fiction? Would non-fiction cut too close to the bone for comfort?
Will non-fiction books about Africa sell more than the ones about the West (written by outsiders) because those who will buy the books in the numbers necessary to render the publishing venture profitable are far more eager to lap up tales of strange, distant places that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the lives they live; than they are to read about their own lands?
Aliu Babatunde Fafunwa, recently deceased Nigerian Professor of Education, who gained three degrees (Bachelors, Masters and a doctorate) in the United States in the late 1940s to early 1950s published, in 2003, an account of his years in America, ‘To America and Back Alive.’
In the early 1960s the Nigerian poet, dramatist and critic, JP Clark, then only in his early twenties, wrote ‘America, Their America’, an account of a disastrous sojourn to the United States. “Disastrous” because before the end of the Fellowship that took him to the US he was expelled from the programme, for not taking his Fellowship obligations very seriously. America, their America is an African’s self-assured critique of America; and a not-very-flattering one at that; not the kind of book one would expect those at the receiving end, the Americans, to welcome. (Might it have been more acceptable had Clark written a novel instead of a journal?)
Last year at an event in Nairobi I listened to a Kenyan writer tell the story of a (Kenyan) friend of his who spent six months living in, or perhaps merely wandering through, Asia. The writer says he asked the wanderer if he’d created any written record of his journey. The answer, as you’d expect, was no. He hadn’t. He simply went, saw and returned; nothing written, nothing recorded.
Nigerians are often like that Kenyan. We travel far and wide, but often do no more than seek out well-worn sightseers’ paths, where we pose for photos - we manage to get this done in between hopping from mall to mall; shopping and/or window-shopping. Few consider it important to document the journeys they have made, to assay and interpret their experiences for the wider world.
Even fewer would take a journey merely for the purposes of writing about it. And while there’s an entire library of non-fiction books written by participants on the US Peace Corps programme books, the same cannot be said of the ‘Technical Aid Corps’ which is roughly the Nigerian equivalent (sending Nigerian professionals to African and Caribbean countries on two-year tours of duty).
Why are we content to travel without giving much thought to that which we see and experience, other than superficial observations that lazily compare the places we visit with Nigeria? Why are we unconcerned about documenting - in an illuminating manner - our own ways of seeing these strange and foreign places.
Might it be that we see nothing worthy of writing about?
I’m hoping this article would start a conversation about the horribly skewed balance of non-fictional stories and narratives in the world today. And for all I know, I may be totally mistaken in my assumptions that Africans are not writing enough non-fiction about the foreign worlds they encounter.
Perhaps those books are being written, but there are no publishers. Or perhaps there are even a good number of those books in print, which I'm ignorant of. If you know one or two that have been written, kindly recommend them. And please share your thoughts on this.
November 01, 2010
The Owls | The Sorrow Gondola by Tomas Transtromer
One night in May I stepped ashore
through a cool moonlight
where the grass and flowers were gray
but smelled green.
I drifted the slope
in the colorblind night
while white stones
signaled to the moon.
In a period
a few minutes long
and fifty-eight years wide.
And behind me
beyond the lead-shimmering water
lay the other shore
and those who ruled.
People with a future
instead of faces.
In the days leading up to the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, the literary world was abuzz after British odds-makers, Ladbrokes, published their Nobel predictions in The Guardian (UK). They originally placed the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer in pole position. For devotees of Tranströmer’s poetry (and there are many, as he’s the 20th century’s most translated poet behind Pablo Neruda), this was far from surprising news. I first encountered Tranströmer's work through Samuel Charters’ translation of the book-length poem Baltics (Oyez, 1975). For me, Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry is uncontainable, organic, apparitional, and wrought with simultaneities. His work is stripped down to an acute, essential lyricism that he finds in the natural world and the wilderness of the imagination. He has always been outside of academic circles and has never belonged to an aesthetic movement. His background is in psychology, the piano, and entomology. He writes with spiritual overtones yet avoids the trappings of religious poetry. He alludes to political peril and the great human failings of our recent history yet he does so without pandering to didacticism. His allegiances are to liminal spaces, hinterlands, intersections, border crossings, and the images that take us there.
"A Page from The Nightbook," by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl, from The Sorrow Gondola, Green Integer Books, 2010. Click here for Green Integer's ordering information on this title. The Owls site is for digital writing and art projects. New projects on the site include Micrograffiti, edited by Stacey Swann, and Pima Road Notebook, by Keith Ekiss. Cross-posts appear here thanks to 3DQ. Updates from The Owls are available via email subscription on the main page. To add The Owls to your Facebook news stream, Like the site here.
October 25, 2010
Statistics - Destroyer of Superstitious Pretension
In Philip Ball’s Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another, he articulates something rather profound: statistics destroys superstition. The idea, once expressed, is simple but does not stem its profundity. Incidents in small numbers sometimes become ‘miraculous’ only because they appear unique, within a context that fuels such thinking. Ball’s own example is Uri Geller: in the 1970’s, the self-proclaimed psychic stated he would stop the watches of several viewers. He, perhaps, twisted his face and furrowed his brow and all over America watches stopped. America, no doubt, turned into an exclamation mark of incredulity. What takes the incident out of the sphere of the miraculous, however, is the consideration of statistics: With so many millions of people watching, what was the likelihood of at least some people’s watches stopping anyway? What about all those watches that did not stop?
Our psychological make-up seeks a chain in disparate events. Our mind is a bridge-builder across chasms of unrelated incidents; a credulity stone-hopper, crouching at each juncture awaiting the next link in a chain of causality. To paraphrase David Hume, we tend to see armies in the clouds, faces in trees, ghosts in shadows, and god in pizza-slices.
Many incidents that people refer to as miraculous, supernatural, and so on, become trivial when placed within their proper context. Consider the implications of this: Nicholas Leblanc, a French chemist, committed suicide in 1806; Ludwig Boltzmann, the physicist who explained the ‘arrow of time’ and gave us the Boltzmann Constant, committed suicide in 1906; his successor, Paul Ehrenfest, also committed suicide, in 1933; the American chemist Wallace Hume Carothers, credited with inventing Nylon, killed himself in 1937. This seems to ‘imply’ a strong link between suicide and science. Of course, as Ball indicates himself, we must look at the contexts: We must ask what the suicide-rating of these different demographics was in general: of Americans, Europeans, males, and any other demographic.
Ball shows that in the 19th- to 20th-century Austria of Boltzmann and Ehrenfest, suicides were quite common: ‘[Suicide in Austria] claimed the lives of three of [the philosopher] Wittgenstein’s brothers, [the composer] Gustav Mahler’s brother, and in 1889, the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria.’ Seen in the ‘light of the relevant demographic statistics’, says Ball, Ludwig Boltzmann’s death does not indicate something special about suicide and science. Statistics made this incident banal by removing it from isolation; statistics returned these strange facts about the Austrian scientists and their suicides into a context that bridged the chasm where the miraculous or spectacular are birthed. Statistics helps us show the echoes in this Chasm of Credulity harmonise with a larger context, helps us weed out the isolated incidents before they grow into poisoned fruit of proclamations of superstitious awe. Science seeks ways to bridge, if not narrow, this Chasm of Credulity.
Whether the incidents are psychic-telephone calls or astrology charts, nearly all can be minimised, and thus emptied, of their pretensions. Bloated anecdotes of precognitive abilities are drained when we think of their corollary: how many more times have you thought of someone and the telephone hasn’t wrung? What are the chances of several hundred people’s watches stopping in a crowd of a few million? With the millions of combinations of baked dough, tree bark, and mountain cliffs, perhaps it’s more likely for us not to see face in these various phenomena. Statistics can aid us here, bringing us back down to earth, instead of drifting among the clouds of make-believe.
To make sense of this, consider the ‘birthday problem’: what are the chances that, in a small group of people, any two share a birthday? Let us assume a group of 30 people and there are 365 days in a year. Two people must share one of those 365 days. Thus, we first work out the total possible combinations of two people’s birthdays if they asked each other: that would be 365 x 365 x 365 … for the number of people. That means 36530, which is a massive number. This is the denominator. We can now calculate the number of matches that are not birthdays, working our way backwards to figure out the probability.
Person #1 states his birthday. Person # 2 has 364 days to choose from, Person # 3 has 363, and so on (remember, the birthdays do not match hypothetically). An image useful in considering this is Person # 1 drawing a red cross on yearly-calendar, Person # 2 doing the same in the available spaces, and so on, until thirty people have done it. That is working your way down. So, in trying to work out how many people do not share a birthday, we have to say 365 x 364 x 363 … and so on until you’ve done it 30 times. Thus, we write it as follows:
‘N’ equals the amount of participants and ‘!’ indicates a factorial, which works its way down as we indicated above (365 x 364 … 336 x 335). This is the numerator for our example.
Now, we simply combine our figures.
We are left with: [365!/335!]/365^30
According to the calculations, we should get: 0.2936. Remember this is the chance of people not sharing a birthday. So, the chance of sharing a birthday is inverted (1 - 0.2936): making it about 70%, between two people, in a group of 30.
Using careful calculations we encounter a counter-intuitive conclusion: in a group of 30 people, the chances that two people share a birthday is above 20-, 50- and even 60-percent. On face value, not many of us would probably think the chances that high. This shows there is actually nothing remarkable or special or spooky about two people sharing a birthday, considering that cold calculation indicates the likelihood being more than a coin-toss.
How does this reflect in superstition? Using the horizon this little but wonderful example provides, we can eclipse all manner of abysmal superstitious exclamations: What were the chances that we would meet again? What was the likelihood that I should win the lottery/win at Blackjack after I wore my lucky-jacket, prayed to my god, etc.? What were the chances of recovery from my cancer, after I went to a homeopath, a crystal-healer, a witch-doctor? All these are important questions, but are asked in a rhetorical flourish meant to indicate that the chances ‘were slim’ or ‘highly unlikely’, thus it must be the magic-man that heals, or your hidden psychic connection that provoked meeting your friend.
Consider the danger of ignoring proper calculations in medicine. People often tell us they go to a homeopath after going to a doctor; the doctor who is merely a puppet to ‘big-pharma’, who treats ‘me like a machine’ and so on. The medicines ‘Western’ doctors supply ‘do not work’, so people attend something more catchy, comforting and casual: the homeopath, the angel-healer, the witch-doctor. Strangely, one thing doctors can learn from these hucksters is the attention given to patients: the care, the pampering and the dignity conveyed. These all appear to play a factor, though people, like the great Barbara Ehrenreich, destroyer of all positive thinking, remain sceptical of how much attitude really affects health. If for no other reason than to keep patients, doctors could learn from these practitioners (they may be ‘practitioners’ but they are not medical ‘practitioners’). However, in the most important engagements of medicine, there is no time for pampering or it is simply inappropriate in an environment where, for example, the most important thing is to immunise a child.
Back to the patient: Firstly, what were the chances of you getting cured of your ailment anyway? Secondly, are we talking about a cold or a cancer? Is it absolutely impossible for cancers to suddenly go into remission without medical foresight? Of course not; oncologists will relate many stories where this has happened suddenly. The irony of course is that people imagine medical treatment as a coin-toss; you flip a coin once, the chances of getting tails are fifty-fifty. If you flip it again, the chances of getting tails remain fifty-fifty. The chances are ‘reset’ each time (this is different to asking how many tails I can get in a row, for example). But medical treatment does not ‘reset’ (similar to Ian Hacking’s Inverse Gambler’s Fallacy). Medical effects carry over.
People forget that medicine takes time to have an effect. When the effect happens to coincide with you drinking glorified water or smelling pretty aromas, many will point to homeopathy or aromatherapy as being the curing solution. But you might as well point to closing your car door or scratching your chin, since these might also have coincided with your body’s defence recognising the aid you had taken months or weeks ago. This false attribution to alternate stuffs gives them undeserved recognition and detracts from the things that actually cured you: even if it was not the medicine, we can safely say it was just your body! Health, though incredibly advanced, is still swathed in mystery but it does not mean we resort to made-up answers or whatever is convenient.
All these are factors made apparent when we put it into a proper context, asking for calculations and chances. Statistics is also wonderful since numbers do not discriminate, though obviously people may use them to do so.
The only thing remarkable about the strange world of ‘alternative medicine’ is the extent to which we allow ourselves to be duped, paying billions of our currencies into industries that consistently prove the power of the placebo. We are watching the pretensions of assertions squander our money. These fraudsters are using the Chasm of Credulity, the gap of isolated incidents, where the echoes of events removed from their context reside, leading to the fruition of bad thinking and anecdotal justifications. This same chasm across which people take leaps of faith and jump to conclusions.
The main reason scientists do not automatically trust anecdotal evidence is primarily because we need to put it into a context, test it, prod it, poke it. Anecdotes were and could be the first stirrings of something magnificent. But if the scientific eye turns toward the phenomena and it shrivels up and dies under scrutiny, it probably was not worth pursuing anyway. Someone’s clouds of hot air dissipate when cold reason enters the room.
For example: simply saying I felt better after being ‘touched’ by a magic man tells us nothing. Even if millions of people testify to the abilities of holy men and women, as they do in India with certain gurus, we need to obtain a context, the likelihood of their abilities occurring naturally (for example, did he really cure someone or was the patient’s disease likely to disappear anyway? What are the chances the storm clouds had been gathering for days and not summoned by a rain-dance?) Anecdotes are by definition after the fact, often not repeatable, and often, and most important, divorced of their context. Remember: what makes an event miraculous or supernatural is, more often than not, ignorance about the statistics of its occurrence within a specific context; as we saw with science and suicides, and sharing a birthday between random people.
To give you a further idea of this, consider this seemingly incredible find: Ben Goldacre relates a story from England in which ‘drinking the Queen’s Royal Deeside spring water improved arthritis symptoms in two-thirds of patients.’ Sounds remarkable until we put it into context, as Goldacre does: ‘It was a study of 34 patients over three months and there was no control group.’ To truly engage us, it should have much more patients, over a longer time and have a control group: i.e. a group that serves as a foil to the original and has similar characteristics as the experimental group but are given a placebo. To create a context for this remarkable find, we must offer a control to see whether it was truly the Queen’s Royal Deeside spring water or something else (if the control group gets similar results it does not mean the control was the cure, but that, more ldrinking the Queen’s Royal Deeside spring water improved arthritis symptoms in two-thirds of patientsikely, it was neither the experimental cure nor the control). Goldacre quips: ‘It’s hard to imagine an experiment where it would have been easier to come up with a convincing placebo [for a control group]. Water.’ Remember the birthday experiment: it sounds remarkable until we actually use statistics. Similarly, things become remarkable when we are unaware of the likelihood of, for example, arthritis being improved anyway due to the body’s own resistance.
Michael Shermer, in Scientific American, wrote: ‘thinking anecdotally comes naturally, whereas thinking scientifically does not.’ Because thinking scientifically is, most often, counter-intuitive to our ape minds: we are not computers or calculators. Would anyone think that there was above 50% chance that two people, in a random group of 30, share a birthday? Would anyone automatically think tiny things called bacteria and germs and viruses can cause untold misery and death, sometimes able to destroy entire civilisations?
No wonder for this latter we invoked gods since it seemed there was no other explanation: the irony being that both explain the death of crops but: which has been more useful, helped with preventative measures and so on?
We could say (1) sacrificing a virgin and letting her blood drain into the soil satisfied the gods resulting in our crops being restored or (2) we could point out that specific bacteria are infecting our plants and getting rid of these leads to restored crops. We face enormous problems if we use the first considering, for example, that not all virgins seem to pacify the gods. At the least, for simply practical, testable reasons – not to mention that crops have been restored despite no sacrifices over the years – the latter is more helpful and indeed more people realise as such for this simple, pragmatic reason. Yet we can’t escape the fact that both explain the same phenomenon. To explain is not to justify or even to reasonably justify. It is simply a story we tell to narrate our target events. Gods or bacteria, both result in the same thing. The duty of statistics and indeed of science can help disconnect the two showing that, whilst it is true both are explanations, only one survives objective testing so that even outsiders can ‘cure the appetites of the gods’.
I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s pertinent question: ‘Why did people think the sun went around the Earth?’ A reply given was: ‘Well, it just looks that way!’ Wittgenstein looked up at the sky and said: ‘But what does it look like when the Earth revolves around the Sun?’ Both heliocentrism and geocentrism arise from the same platform: looking up at the ‘movement’ of the Sun. We now know which is true (it’s heliocentrism in case you’re wondering).
Today, our societies face even worse submission before the altar of intuition, upon which bleeds all the evidence to the contrary.
The recent horror of anti-vaccination foolishness is a direct point that could be sharpened with an awareness of statistics. Shermer relates that there were a number of ‘parents who noticed that shortly after having their children vaccinated autistic symptoms began to appear.’ It was the beginning of the furore that would claim children’s lives, all because people believed anecdotal dogma above scientific reasoning. This was then compounded by the fraudulent blathering of Andrew Wakefield. Indeed, Wakefield is an excellent case-study for showing the power of statistics to empower us against charlatans like him.
Wakefield published an article in the prestigious Lancet journal, in 1998. It was more a speculative piece not warranting the media’s salacious transformation. In it, Wakefield reported 12 cases about his topic, the first stirrings of the link between autism and vaccination. Depending on the criteria, this is either remarkable or statistically negligible: 12 people sprouting wings or extra limbs from touching a wall warrants attention. Goldacre says: ‘For things as common as MMR and autism, finding 12 people with both is entirely unspectacular.’ This plugs the case back into context, stripping it of anything remarkable. Johann Hari agrees that the pool of test-subjects was too small: ‘It was based on a tiny pool of infants, most of whom were in the study because their parents believed in the link [between vaccines and autism] and wanted to sue for compensation.’
Wakefield then went on a media-rampage, publishing wherever he could to poke and prod the current medical procedures involved (specifically saying that the vaccinations should be separated by perhaps a year). Hari and Goldacre correctly condemn the media as being the main culprit in this saga of salaciousness, this epic of idiocy; giving an equal platform for health professionals and grieving parents, as if both had a basis for the scientific justifications. Here’s a clue: tears aren’t evidence. No doubt there is nothing worse than to lose a child; but when the danger of your own anger and hatred will lead to the death and suffering of other children, you deserve no compassion. I am looking at you, Jenny McCarthy.
Parents were given a tangible culprit in the form of the ‘Western medical establishment’ to blame for their impaired child instead of facing the facts of an indifferent universe, with no cosmic balance or care for us. Using no scientific facts, except sometimes Wakefield’s now completely discredited authority, mothers could invoke their own intuition to decide whether ‘stabbing their child three times’ was a good thing; they were encouraged to consult something as unfounded as psychics: their gut-feelings.
If we want a possible half-definition of science, perhaps it is this: whatever is counter-intuitive, perhaps most upsetting to our axiomatic assumptions, that thoroughly and clearly and elegantly explains the phenomena we are encountering. It’s not a perfect definition, but then, it’s not meant to be. Consulting your gut-feelings is precisely how not to do science using this sense of it: we are not so ‘made’ that consultation with our internal organs will lead to a proper explanation of the world; indeed, we will get the same results by consulting the innards of other animals, like cows or chickens. The point being, time and time again, science has shown the world to be other than we expected it to be. (Of course, there is the opposite, too, but we are not relating that for now.) Mothers being encouraged to consult an animal’s innards, whether their own person or a bovine’s, were being encouraged to be antithetical to evidence-based medicine, a history long and hard fought to combat a disease, and our greatest achievement as a species which continues to save millions of lives.
Here is how statistics killed Wakefield’s reputation. His findings in the Lancet from his tiny, biased pool of patients, were overshadowed by a later investigation into 1.8 million, randomly-chosen children, in Finland. They found nothing unstable when the children encountered the MMR-vaccine. Hari tells us:
Even more startlingly, it was found that when MMR was suspended in Japan due to production problems, autism rates held steady - but 90 extra children died of measles. This evidence was waved away by much of the press as difficult and indigestible; they preferred to focus instead on brain-dead trivia… (italics added)
The statistics tell us then that there is no fruitful or engaging relation between MMR and autism. The size and measurement completely undermines Wakefield’s biased nonsense. Of course, these weren’t the only tests but the sheer size indicates why, just from them, we can at the least be highly suspicious and, at best, completely dismissive of Mr Wakefield.
Wakefield was, however, not main the problem. It was the media’s coverage, their dismissal of important statistics it took me merely seconds to find. If you want the actual culprits, all you need to do is investigate. My point is this: through merely putting Wakefield’s findings into a proper context, we can see whether he is worth taking seriously or is biased and mistaken, if not lying. Like the assertion that drinking from the Queen’s pond heals arthritis, we can just increase the size, look wider and farther, investigate other explanations or ponder if there is an explanation at all worth pursuing. For example, the MMR and autism link was not worth pursuing and was better off not pursuing: considering that even one child died from not being immunised. That is one child too many. However, as one powerful website has indicated, we can (at time of writing) attribute 612 preventable deaths, in the US, to the furore and madness that was targeted at vaccines. And another number is close to it: 66, 515 preventable illnesses.
If we need any more reasons, I can provide them. A problem close to home, in the metaphorical and literal sense, came about through the public poli(dio)cy of Thabo Mbeki, in his ‘denial’ of a link between HIV and AIDS. There is much speculation whether he really thought so, but he very fervently thought of it as a colonial problem, instead of a medical one. So much so that anti-retrovirals were affected in their distribution because Mbeki denied the ‘Western’ science’s diagnosis of HIV/AIDS. Here is the great Raymond Tallis, quoted in full, from his brilliant Hippocratic Oaths:
Of the 70,000 children born annually to HIV-positive mothers in South Africa, about half could have been protected from becoming HIV-positive themselves, and suffering a painful, protracted death, with a single dose of a cheap anti-retroviral drug. Mbeki did what he could to stop this happening. Many of the 800,000 non-infant deaths a year from Aids could also be prevented by making antiretroviral drugs available, but Mbeki’s ideological views did not permit it. According to a recent study (suppressed by the South African Government, which maintains that anti-HIV drugs are toxic and will primarily benefit pharmaceutical companies) immediate provision of such drugs could save up to 1.7 million people by 2010. As one of his former supporters, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Rev Njongonkulu Ndungane, has said, Mbeki's Aids policies are as serious a crime as apartheid — and have already killed many more people.
Mbeki was and indeed is aware of the statistics, which highlights another problem: statistics can be ignored. But then, so can the preventable deaths of infants who die as a result of your bigoted delusions. Ignorance, like a flood, does not discriminate in what it sweeps away.
Empowering ourselves with numbers might seem strange, until we recall how statistics can destroy the pretentions of charlatans or miraculous happenings. Indifferent in itself, statistics displays information anyone is welcome to assess. You would be hard-pressed in defending Wakefield’s tiny Lancet study, with twelve children, over the thorough Finnish one, with 1.8 million. However, numbers are not the end: control-groups, double-blind mechanisms and sensitivity to scientific reasoning that comes with studying statistics are also necessary. In many instances of outrage, like the anti-vaccination uproar or Mbeki’s idiocy, we can reasonably assume that their assertions have no backing with regard to control-groups, alternative hypotheses, and so on. It is invariably the ape-man bursting out the lab coat, to pound his chest, beating out the rhythm of his own bias and delusion.
July 26, 2010
5 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT AFRICA
By Tolu Ogunlesi
Africa their Africa
When Western tourists talk about Africa somehow it seems to me that what they really mean is East and Southern Africa, places like Namibia and Kenya and Botswana and parts of Uganda where you will find safaris and zebras and elephants and lakes in abundance.
When I think of Tourists' Africa I almost never think of Nigeria. Tourists stay away from a country like Nigeria – those masses of foreigners to be seen at the arrival terminal of the Lagos International Airport (MMIA) are diplomats and NGO-types and oil workers and journalists and researchers, and maybe spies. (And of course the occasional ‘Nigerian letter’ victim desperately hoping to recover a lost fortune). For most of them there will be the lure of money to be made / earned – as hardship allowance or crazy business profit. Nigeria is one country where foreigners come to make money, not fritter it away on guided tours and lakeside resorts.
In the Congo they will be aid workers and diamond-seeking businessmen and gorilla savers; ditto the Sudan (minus the gorilla-savers and businessmen). In Liberia and Sierra Leone they will be IMF and World Bank officials. In Guinea Bissau they will mostly be cocaine merchants and US drug enforcement agents.
If Africa didn’t exist, the world – the West, actually – would have had to invent it. If they failed, then China would have succeeded. Indeed the anthropologist and Africa specialist John Ryle wrote, in his review of Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, in the London Guardian: “In an important sense, “Africa” is a western invention. Despite attempts by visionaries to promote unity among the states that inherited dominion from Europe's retreating empires, African politicians have never paid anything more than lip-service to the pan-African ideal.”
But we could even take that concept of invention to the extreme; beyond the invention of African "unity" to the invention of Africa itself.
Think of a planet without Africa, without what British journalist and author of 3 important books about the continent, Michela Wrong described (speaking on behalf of all foreign journalists) as “Africa’s various trouble spots, our professional bread and butter.”
I repeat this: If Africa didn’t exist the West would have had to invent it. If Africa didn’t exist, where would all that aid money go? Saving Europe’s poor? Or bailing out Greece and Iceland? Certainly not; it would have gone instead towards providing grants for publishers and novels churning out books about an 'imaginary continent of Africa', where the only thing that worked would be the dysfunction. If Africa didn't exist, what we today know as Sci-fi would be set on a continent known as 'Africa'.
What would the slave plantations of the New World have done in the absence of Africa? What would Mungo Park have done? David Livingstone? Lord Lugard? Lord Palmerston? Ryszard Kapuscinski? Bob Geldof? What would the World Bank and IMF be without Africa?
If Africa didn’t exist, Steve Jobs would have come to the rescue with the i-frica.
The epidemic of the angry African
Ever since the arrival of television Africa has been greatly defined by its children. Kwarshiorkoed Biafran kids – with bloated bellies and flies in the eyes – shocked the world in the final years of the 1960s, and galvanized a massive humanitarian operation, the modern beginnings of the billion-dollar charity industry. A decade and half later the theatre of pity moved to Ethiopia. Bono and Bob Geldof (as we know them today) were born. The hungry African child motif took its place as the unifying metaphor for a continent of grossly disparate parts.
And then in the 1990s the helpless African child got tough competition, in the form of the child soldier. In place of the begging bowl, the African child now held a Kalashnikov. There’s an entire genre of literature built around these children; books like Chris Abani’s Song for Night, Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah Is Not Obliged, Uzodimma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation; Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, China Keitetsi’s Child Soldier: Fighting For My Life.
Today, decades later, another image is emerging, that will both reflect and define the image of the continent in the years to come. It is the angry African. She is everything that the child victim is not: educated, privileged, in many cases domiciled in the west. She is angry at the portrayals of Africa by Western media. She foams at the mouth when she sees the TIME Magazine essay on maternal mortality in Sierra Leone, has a JPEG file of the Economist’s famous “The Hopeless Continent” cover on her memory stick; can quote Binyavanga Wainana’s essay “How to write about Africa” line by rib-cracking line; and is an avid reader and commentator on blogs and websites, mind an automated search engine programmed with one word: "Africa".
The angry African is as helpless about her anger as the hungry African child is about her hunger. But unlike the hunger the angry African’s anger is justified; every bit of it. She has taken the AK47 from the child soldier, emptied it of its lead and filled its cartridges with ink instead.
True, African anger at Western portrayal is not new. Long before now there was Achebe (to mention only one example) and his trenchant critique of Joseph Conrad. There was the postcolonial anger of the sixties and seventies. So what’s new? The internet, maybe, which has succeeded in multiplying access to the instigators of the anger as well as to means of expressing it. If there were only a handful of angry Africans before now (mostly sequestered in Ivory Towers), today there are armies of them, let loose on the internet.
Backed up by blogs and Twitter and Facebook, angry Africans can wield their anger effortlessly. Beware, all you misinterpreters of the continent. Being well-intentioned will probably no longer save you. There’s a lot to learn from what recently happened to TIME Africa Bureau chief, Alex Perry, here.
Africa is the past – and the future
Ever heard of the Rift Valley? It’s the place in East Africa where scientists tell us humans first learned to walk on two feet, and from where the humans who today occupy other parts of the world commenced their wandering. The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine 2009 summer issue had as its lead a fascinating piece titled: “We’re all African now.”
In it J.M. Ledgard writes: “According to potassium-argon dating, hominids lived here for 900,000 years. They made handaxes which they used to butcher the hippos, zebras and baboons they hunted and scavenged… The Kenyan anthropologist Louis Leakey uncovered a Homo erectus skull here in the 1940s; the brain cavity was disappointingly small. There must have been grunts, gestures with stones, blood, the sky blotted with vultures, ape children kept back in the darkness…”
Ledgard goes on to declare: “We are all Africans. We originated in Africa. That is proved by the continent’s rich genetic inheritance. Africans are more diverse than the rest of humanity put together, because they are drawn from the pool of humans who did not leave…”
Africa is indeed the world’s past. In its darkest recesses lies overwhelming shame – the shame of slavery, of colonialism, of neocolonialism – fuelling the guilt of the world.
But Africa is also the future. Ask China.
Ask Europe in a few decades, when its streets will teem with pensioners, beneath whose combined weight economies will totter; when it’d be easier to find a mosquito in Germany, than a teenage German.
55 percent of the world’s cobalt is in Africa, as are 15 percent of the world’s arable land, 16 percent of its gold, 89 percent of its platinum, and a sixth of its population. Add China and India and Western Europe, the resulting landmass would still be smaller than Africa.
There is an invasion of fibre-optic cabling across huge swatches of the continent, that is certain to smash much of the invisible ceiling that has kept Africa on the ground floor while the world inches towards the penthouse.
It is a fact that it is now much harder than ever before to be a dictator on the continent. Vicious wars have ended in Liberia and Sierra Leone and Angola.
Africa, the scar of yesterday (In 2001 Tony Blair called the African situation “a scar on the conscience of the world”) is also the potential star of tomorrow. It is where the guilt of the world will be assuaged.
How to read about Africa:
I have written before about the 'ink-attracting' nature of Africa’s many fires. Africa has turned the world into firefighters; firefighters with cash and ink in their hoses. What many do not bother to realize is that there are as many “experts” from within as from without.
In a You-Tube Q & A session with readers, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was asked why his “columns about Africa almost always feature black Africans as victims, and white foreigners as their saviors.”
His interesting response: “The problem that I face — my challenge as a writer — in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that frankly, the moment a reader sees that I’m writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that’s the moment to turn the page. It’s very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that. One way of getting people to read at least a few grafs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character.”
So there – we meet the lazy American reader who cannot engage with a piece unless he sees either of the following: a “Donate” button or a White Character created by a White Expert.
It is important for Americans interested in learning about Africa to read not just the Western interpreters of Africa but also the Africans who daily spill ink about a continent they care very much about and probably know more about than many of the foreign experts ever will. Please read the Nicholas Kristofs -- but also make sure to read the Tatalo Alamus and the Reuben Abatis.
In his 2007 TED lecture Chris Abani said: “If you want to know about Africa, read our literature. And not just Things Fall Apart, because that would be like saying I've read, Gone With the Wind, and so I know everything about America.”
Speaking in 2008, author of Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe told Transition Magazine: “The last five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and now the time has come for Africans to tell their own stories.”
They have since started telling those stories. You only need to pay a little more attention.
July 05, 2010
Women's Freedom - A Short Introduction to Why I Care
Why have so many stopped fighting for women’s rights? We fight for “human” rights and discuss them as if they were a natural element of being human; groups lobby and defend, almost diabolically and with much vitriol, the rights of “animals” (species that are not human). Yet women’s rights, that better half of our species, remain a neglected element of secular discourse. It surprises me that so few of those who consider themselves secular humanists do anything concerning this important issue. This does not mean that many secular humanists do not think it important but there is a great divide between simply thinking it important and doing something to make it so. Not only do I think it important, I believe in my lifetime the liberation of woman, all over the world, for all time, is the single most important goal that we must defend, increase and enhance. The other goals which many of us long for, freedom of speech, lack of coercion, and so on, all are part of, and tributaries within, this pathway. By fighting for women, we fight for free speech and liberty; by defending their rights, we defend human rights; by finding the cause for their oppression we cease the cycle of violence and poverty within families around the world. Reports have suggested that a decrease in women’s freedom correlates to an increase in religious fanaticism. This does not mean that once women are free, all over the world, religious dogmatism, backward political regimes and patriarchal bullying will be banished from the earth; but there is little debate that the fight in itself will lead to a greater amount of freedom, more happiness and will result in woman no longer being the fodder for the religious wrath of backward mullahs and reverends.
According to estimates, which have more than likely increased, 70 percent of the two billion poor are women; two thirds of illiterate adults are women; employment rates for women are declining after increasing (yes, of course, the world wars are now over). At the same time many women are forced into veils and burqas, burnt for merely looking at men, stoned to death or buried alive for adultery, forced into sex, pregnancy and delivering HIV-infected children because they were raped, but if they were to report it, they would either be raped again, executed, exiled from their village or town or family. While this happens, the fashion industry booms with make-up and high-heels and plastic models and girls as thin as the paper they are pictured on, presenting us with yet another contrast to whether women really are in control of their bodies even in supposedly liberated societies. That is an issue unto itself, which I am not focused on, but it certainly should give us pause considering the areas we are dealing with. Modern writers, in the secular West, tell women to go back to the kitchen, obey the husband, be a mother, tie an umbilical cord around the house and hang themselves from it. “Feminine is good,” says women’s rights author, Nikki van der Gaag, “feminism is bad.” A lot of feminist views, philosophy and political goals truly deserve scorn, since they replace one tyranny with another; are subject to faith-based, dogmatic adherence rather than calculated sex equality. The vengeful world of patriarchal accident has given birth to a malicious view toward its women. As this highlights, the malicious desire is one of control - but I do not wish to instil Orwellian fears in big governments and little men.
Pulitzer-prize winning journalists, Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife Sheryl Wudunn, have released a book bringing all these fears to the forefront of discussion. Entitled Half the Sky, the book primarily focuses on the successes, horrors and tribulations of women in impossible situations in places where democracy is either unheard of or hated, and where secularism is scorned or prevented. Whilst I am critical of the blind obedience that is Oprah’s Book Club (basically a list of books that Oprah Winfrey – or her cohorts – read or liked), I am glad at least that the subject matter got Winfrey’s attention enough to earn Kristof and Wudunn a place on her show. Such platforms allow the message of women’s rights a greater reach. This is what matters: taking action to at least highlight the plight of women, globally. There are those who are still not aware that although Western women have the vote, are able to have proper jobs, etc., not all women do. More people must realise that the first and worst to suffer from backward bullying and religious fanaticism are most often women and children. It is such an obvious statement but the more it is reiterated, the greater chance we have for getting people into gear, then to change lanes: from passive realisation into full-throttle passion for women's freedom.
Consider the situation with regards to HIV/AIDS in my home continent of Africa. There are many reasons why HIV/AIDS is worse here than elsewhere: A combination of bad health policies and lack of resources, regimes that have not lost their hold on despotism, backward combinations of superstition and overzealous missionaries, and so on, all affect what ought to be done to help them. Add to this that women in Africa are breeding machines, scorned if their production facilities do not work, and we have a system that is designed to destroy a woman’s future, control, and autonomy. This must change: by giving women their bodies, minds and futures back, we are able to help far more people. As AC Grayling has said, summarising similar views on the plight of poorer countries: “If the world is to have a future, it rests in the hands of women”. Because in their hands, lies the happiness of their families, and therefore, of more people.
As many commentators have stated, one of the characteristics of a country that is not controlled by a tyrant or despot is free-speech. I think, however, we must also consider the freedom of women to be equally important. It is no accident that highly-controlled, anti-liberal, highly religious countries not only have blasphemy laws, but give no freedom to their women. Indeed, I think countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia do not so much limit women’s freedom as deny them personhood. By this I mean they are denied the same freedoms, recognition, aspirations, duties, goals, dreams, and so on, that are found in their husbands or fathers. Many might reply and say that the men themselves prisoners; then, all the more reason we need to focus on change. Once again, though our primary goal is to better the lives of women, our reasons are for the betterment of all.
Awareness is the beginning of change. Anger is the beginning of amelioration. We must take charge of these situations, as individuals, and do what we are able to help the better half of our species.
We can do this in many ways: spreading the message, constantly, consistently and with clarity. We can better our knowledge into the plight of women, whether in our own societies, or more importantly in those places that do not welcome gender equality. There are groups, such as UNIFEM and Relief Society, which need volunteers, campaigners, and managers. From our positions within secular democracies, we tend to ignore our voices which have the potential to echo out across international zones. Our voices can create tiny cracks in foundations long since fossilised into tradition. However, I do not think we will ever completely liberate our entire species, or even the better half. But even a few lives saved, even a few lives bettered, is worth anything we choose to do. Apathy is no longer a choice. If you have a voice, use it. We must begin to help the better half of our species; because, in that way, we help our species as a whole.
PS: I obtained my stats from various sources, but please email me if you have updated facts that show my mistakes.
June 28, 2010
Reality Hunger: Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before1
The format: David Shields’ Reality Hunger is written as a series of short, numbered paragraphs. The content: Reality Hunger, according to the flyleaf, “is a rigorous and radical attempt to reframe how we think about ‘truthiness,’ literary license, quotation, appropriation.’ That means mashups, sampling, the whole ‘meta’ thing. Get it?
The book's numbered-paragraph format is, among other things, ideally suited to presenting ideas as aphorisms and aphorisms as stand-alone objects. David Shields quotes a lot of aphorisms and writes some others himself. I just opened the book at random to look for some, and in the pages that presented themselves I found three.
The above statement about opening the book at random just now and finding three aphorisms is true. That makes it a piece of reality writing about Reality Hunger. Here are the three: “There is properly no history, only biography.” “All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.” “The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” They are from Emerson, Yeats, and Wilde. Aphorisms, especially absent their original context, are a stimulating but ultimately unsatisfying form. They’re popcorn shrimp on the buffet table of literature, postage stamps on the billets-doux and unpaid utility bills of the human spirit. To be honest, I think they're cool and fun to quote just as much as the author does. But then I love popcorn shrimp, too, so my original point stands.
As for those paragraphs, here's one: “In hip-hop, the mimetic function has been eclipsed to a large extent by manipulation of the original …theft without apology …” Followed by this: “In the slot called data, the reality is sliced in – the junk-shop find, thrift store clothes, the snippet of James Brown, the stolen paragraph from Proust, and so on.” See? He’s telling you why he’s throwing all those aphorisms in there without crediting the authors who wrote them. He's doing it to echo what he says is the new, magpie-like structure of 21st Century creation: appropriation without credit. But, as he explains in the end, the lawyers made him credit everyone at the end of the book anyway. He suggests you cut those pages out of your edition with scissors, but I’m not going to do that. It would diminish the resale value of the book.
So this book adheres to a self-referential form of literary construction, the “form follows function follows form” school that looks for a unifying concept and then seeks to mimic it in its own structure. It's not as bad as poems about vases that are shaped like vases, but there's some relationship there.
As for that paragraph, I beg to differ: Sampling James Brown is nothing like quoting Proust without attribution. Sampling James Brown is like collaborating with Proust from beyond the grave. (His, not yours.) It’s like eating the heart of a powerful warrior to imbibe his strength. It’s both respectful and rebellious, like those Zen guys who call themselves Buddhists yet say “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Hip-hop appropriation is cannibalism, not theft. Quoting a Proust paragraph without attribution is not cannibalism; it’s a trip to some museum where the exhibits are beautiful but unlabeled.
Shields quotes something from The Commitments (the movie; he says he didn’t read the novel) about soul music being “basic and simple.” Don’t go quoting that bullshit around me, Mister! Soul is rhythmically sophisticated, musically eloquent, and often lyrically elegant. (From Sam & Dave's "May I Baby," for example: "Each step you take my heart beats three times ...") So he’s quoting a fictional movie character who is derived from a fictional book character who is himself experiencing a form of second-hand culture. It’s the Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox, so no wonder the quality is bad. It’s pointless to repeat that stuff; there’s no point to it. Errors of condescension and superficiality are too high a price to pay for a self-referential literary model.
Shields likes Sarah Silverman and lavishes praise on her for the way she uses her own life as material. Okay, she’s funny, but so is Shecky Greene. Or should I have said Morey Amsterdam? (They called Morey “The Human Joke Machine.”) All comedians use their own lives for material. Most of them would eat the fingers right off their own hand for a laugh. Raiding their own biographies is standard operating procedure. Ain’t nothin’ new about about Sarah Silverman in that regard.
David Shields: I’m reading this book and I keep thinking “I like him," then "I don’t like him.” Sometimes he’s like the guy at a party who annoys you by constantly talking. Then you realize he’s really erudite and is saying some interesting things. Then he starts to annoy you again because he's so full of himself. I saw a guy like that at a party last week. I really did.
Now Shields is quoting Montaigne: “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Okay, now he's definitely the annoying guy at the party. Except that with that quote he becomes a stoned college freshman in 1971, and he's hitting on a SUNY Binghamton student who's wearing a burgundy leotard. She’s Jewish but not religious – in fact, she looks a little like Sarah Silverman - and she has an empty bottle of Mateus with a candle in it in her dorm room. Does he succeed? Depends on who owns the narrative, I guess.
Wait. I think I’m getting his rhythm. On the next page (I’m making notes as I go at the moment) he tells a story not unlike the one I just jotted down, about reading the diary of a girl named Rebecca. I don’t necessarily believe the story is true, but then again I don’t much care either way. (Note to self: Pitch a humor piece for a literary magazine about Proust’s sixth-grade essay on “how I spent my summer vacation.”)
I once wrote this about Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: "Some will argue that it's unfair of me to make snap judgments about a book that, by my own admission, I never finished reading. But isn't that supposed to be the point?" I mention that because it may seem unfair that to be mimicking Shields’ style. Hey, I’m appropriatin’ here!
Dude is erudite, though, I'll give him that. And that's enjoyable. I know what he is: He's a covers band. I like covers bands. I've played in few myself. It's an honorable profession, so long as you remember you're in a Led Zep tribute band and don't start thinking you're Jimmy Page.
This book reminded me a little of Love’s Body by Norman O. Brown, which as I recall also had a series of paragraphs in it, each a riff on a quote from someone else. I don’t remember the format for sure, though, and I’m not going to disrupt the reality-based structure of this writing experiment by looking for a copy. In any case, if the “highest form of criticism is autobiography” then that’s how I remember Love’s Body, and I’m the one doing the writing in this little transaction between us. I was lonely the week I read Love's Body. Roberto Bolano's novel Antwerp has numbered paragraphs too, but that's fiction. This isn't fiction. Or is it?
Shields talks a lot about Oprah. Know what would be cool? If he got on Oprah. That would be so meta. But he gives a free pass to James Frey – we all fictionalize, blah blah blah. Frey fictionalized his story about addiction and what it takes to recover. He lied about a program that helps people (one of several approaches, to be sure) and pretended you can conquer the worst addictions through self-will. People probably denied themselves the help they needed and died because of what Frey wrote. That’s where the cute stops being cute – when playing with ideas becomes more important than thinking through the real-life consequences of what we say.
The genre genre, the meta-level criticism. If that’s what Shields is doing, then what the hell am I doing? I’m writing about writing that’s all about other writing. It’s like this whole exercise is a set of those nesting Russian dolls, but in reverse, and with fictional narratives and hip-hop references painted on them instead of babushka scarves.
“You don’t need a story. The question is: How long do you not need a story?” That question appears on page 122. The answer for me is: Well before page 122.
Also on that page: “Nothing is going to happen in this book.” That’s an Annie Dillard line, but consider it fair warning.
Somewhere else he suggests there really is a story but it’ll take some effort on the reader's part to find it. Effort requires motivation.
At the end I sorta liked the guy. He sounds like a lot of my friends, some of whom can be irritating sometimes too. So I either need to give this book a better review or find new friends. I was entertained by the book, for sure. It helped me survive a cross-country flight, even if it had fewer insights per mile than I expected. Still, it was awfully hard to see past the over-reaching and excesses. It almost seemed as if someone decided it would be a good idea to write a provocative book about our appropriating mashup culture, wrote a successful proposal, then retrofitted the whole book to the marketing proposal-ish concept.
I was left wishing I had gotten paid something for this review, since I paid real cash money for my copy of the book. Still, I respect anyone who can write a book that gets published and provokes some real debate. People will ask: Is he just a bombthrower? Like that's a bad thing. Bombs cast light - but then, only briefly and with a lot of wasted energy. (Hey, is that an aphorism?)
I wish this was a better review - as in both "better written" and "more favorable" - but somebody said that life is a series of compromises. If this sounds like a book you want to read, go right ahead. I won't assume the authoritative voice and pretend I can decide for you. Maybe I can quote somebody who says “buy it” and somebody who says “don’t buy it.” Then you can mash them together while dancing to music by James Brown with lyrics by Proust. Or something like that. Hey, do what you want. I'm not going to tell you where this next line comes from, no matter what the goddamned lawyers say, but frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.
And you can quote me.
February 15, 2010
What's Negative about Being Positive (and Pursuing Happiness)
Overhearing younger folk talking about “life”, I heard a statement that gave me pause: “All we want in life is to be happy.” As axiomatic as it seems, this short assertion does not make sense. The plague of much modern thought rests in attempting to cure itself with “happiness”: some ill-defined single mechanism or property of existence that we each strive for that completes, fulfils or renders whole our entire existence. Note: I did not say we do not wish to be happy; but this is different from saying all we want is to be happy. Indeed, as the great AC Grayling has highlighted: “The first lesson of happiness is that the surest way to be unhappy is to think that happiness can be directly sought.” Its epiphenomenal property is obvious: happiness arises as a by-product of other endeavours. From this we must take notice that to seek out happiness directly is juvenile, misguided and often retarding of the process of living a good life in the first place.
Studying psychology, one is forced to realise that no one book, one person or one attitude can spur you toward greater things; an obvious conclusion, you would think, when you read dust-covers that each states this author, this book, this practise will change your life. How many times can your life be changed before it is no longer yours? Rather your life is handed over to some quack who claims to be/is a motivational-speaker, a healer, a guru, an angel guide, a psychic, a priest, a philosopher. Often these people have had some powerful subjective experience that creates a sense of authority in attaining “enlightenment”, “wholeness”, “being”, or some other important-sounding word. Whether it’s because they rode around Africa on their bicycles, came from poverty to wealth, are able to read auras and sense angels, they all take their experiences as a reason to be considered an expert in guiding you toward happiness. (There are some excellent books about happiness - often debunking all the previous books' claims - but they share a coherence with reality; indeed, the best are classics written by Plato or Epicurus or Aurelius for example.)
A recent example of quack advice, in the last decade, has been The Secret – written by Rhonda Byrne but features full-length nonsense advice by self-described experts in fields ranging from quantum healing to psychic manipulation of the universe. Indeed, the whole “secret” is based on positive psychology but wholly devoid of rationality and evidence; instead, it drives a wedge between modern thought’s understanding of causality and our ancient superstitions: that is, when we finally stopped saying the gods caused lightning and understood electricity, when we stopped saying witches cursed our children and washed our hands. The "secret" is that by simply wishing it, it can be so: something known as the “law of attraction”, the bizarre notion that “like attracts like”. That means the universe can detect when you want or need something.
According to the publishers, the “secret” makes its appearance in many ancient documents and was utilised by great people, like Plato, Leonardo, and Einstein. Damian Thompson sets about debunking it with razor-sharp precision in his book Counterknowledge: “The formula can be summed up in three words: Ask. Believe. Receive. No one knows why it works, we are told, but it may have something to do with quantum physics.” (This is doubtful but is appealing, since quantum physics is complicated and inexplicable to our petty human minds, therefore it can be used as an explanation by appealing to its complicated and inexplicable nature. It is for this reason we see the word “quantum” involved with so much twaddle: it is useful as an explanatory tool because it is [almost] inexplicable).
There are many terrible methods like The Secret available. Indeed, some publishers, like Hay House, devote their entire output to nonsense like this.
Pastel-coloured, bright lines, the author’s face, perhaps a waterfall or rainbow, are found on the glossy or soft bendable cover; it has blurbs from authors that would surround it in a bookstore; it will either be a sequel or part of a sequence of books, written by this author or group claiming to be the way to change your life; to add some spice, there might be an Eastern flavour in the form of Chinese, Japanese or Arabic writing which you probably can’t read (or anything that is "not Western": Aztecs, Mayans, Sioux, etc.); and, my favourite, the claim that this is “ancient” knowledge, as though being around for an extended period of time is a good thing (murder, rape, earthquakes are also ancient). (Click here to see an example: I only saw this after I wrote this paragraph, though you might think I was simply describing this book)
Petty as this may seem the self-help, quick-fix industry, whether it has the wings of angels or the label of psychology speaks deeply of how many of us see the world. We all know that we shouldn’t prefer instant gratification over more meaningful endeavours; we all know that surface reflections say nothing about the dark blue depths beneath. But with spindly legs, people dance across the surface, smile at their reflections and call such posturing and posing a meaningful life.
Even supposedly more down-to-earth formulations are prone to retard the process of self-knowledge. For example, Oprah gave birth to a “tell-it-like-it-is” “quick-fix” talk-show host called Dr. Phil McGraw. McGraw’s procedures are entirely without merit since they provide instant advice which for the most part can help no one but his bank-manager. He is to psychology what tinned-tuna is to fish: packaged and compressed into bite-size, tasteless, and unbeneficial forms. McGraw has other compressed cohorts pushed in alongside him, all talking about solving life’s problems, getting a first date, getting thin, finding your “soul mate”. Though these are not spun with angel wings, the fairy-dust is visible in the chasm between proper help and InstaHelp.
Immanuel Kant said, in his famous essay on morals, “the concept of happiness is such an indeterminate one that even though everyone wishes to attain happiness, yet he can never say definitely and consistently what it is that he really wishes and wills.” Barbara Ehrenreich, in a her latest book Smile or Die, about the negative effects of “positive thinking” (a fad which has offspring like The Secret), says:
There is an anxiety… right here in the heart of American positive thinking. If the generic “positive thought” is correct and things really are getting better, if the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance [as most of the authors of positive thinking books claim], then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking? Obviously, because we do not fully believe that things will get better on their own. The practice of positive thinking is an effort to pump up this belief in the face of much contradictory evidence.
I do not want to argue that perhaps this is not what The Secret or Hay House or angels say; that would be to get into the torrid metaphysics of each, which means accepting the premise that the universe views us as important. Let us begin dismantling these vain assumptions on the purposes of our lives and happiness.
As Ehrenreich has correctly pointed out, the universe is not "a happy place". Indeed, looking at our planet alone, this is not a place of sunshine, rainbows and bunnies leaping with chocolate. Sometimes there are moments of genuine beauty, love, fulfillement; but mostly it is a place of madness, death and horror; it is a place where parents sexually abuse their children for decades, where we attempt to annihilate an entire group of people by a random property we give them as their identity; it is a place where judgments on strangers fly hard and fast like bullets; where morality is neither debated nor considered because, for the most part, an arbitrary deity has decided what is right and wrong. Between angels and insects, longing for the life “after”, humans with bloody hands and quivering eyes look to a god or the world or nature to make things right
In another excellent study on happiness, Jennifer Michael Hecht, focuses on everything from philosophy to poetry, politics to psychology, "exploding myths" about happiness (the quotation comes from the cover of her book). In the book The Happiness Myth, Hecht says: "Despite their many opinions about what we should do with our lives once we get our happiness under control, the philosophers, the wisdom writers, and the self-help leaders all say the same thing about what we should do to get to happiness. That is why self-help leaders can indeed help many smart people, and why even the wisest of us might find an insight among the sugary encouragements and tough love. There are four doctrines found in all happiness theory from wisdom literature, philosophy, psychology and self-help. They are:
- Know yourself
- Control your desires
- Take what's yours
- Remember death."
The great Bertrand Russell said: "Contempt for happiness is usually contempt for other people's happiness, and is an elegant disguise for hatred of the human race." (Of course, DH Lawrence claimed to see through Russell's professed love for mankind and stated that deep down Russell hated humanity. It may be more correct to say Rusell loved humanity but hated people).
My contempt is not for happiness, itself, but the direct pursuit and fruitless endeavours proclaimed by people as being fruitful. All we want is not happiness but things which, indirectly but perhaps as a by-product, bring fulfillment, pleasure, a sense of worth, a slither of vanity that we are part of something greater and better. Some of us realise that we might not have happiness but rather moments of these latter properties, each of them the tip of an iceberg not even contemplated. Instead of direct happiness, I want health, stability and fulfillment for my fellow man; I want delusions of grandeur and vanity to be placated and pacified by the humility that a thousand dawns occur all the time, which are reflected on near-infinite oceans on uncountable worlds in our sprawling universe (this is a scientific fact which, when realised, is much more beautiful than any notion of angels or spirits). Some of us realise that we can encounter and tap into such numinous moments, but they are fleeting. Nonetheless, they are there.
Yet we must face up to our plight.
We are doubly afflicted: by physical and mental wounds; the latter of fear, anxiety, rage, horror, sadness. Our realisation of our own existence comes with the price of realising its ultimate meaninglessness. To rectify that, we make ourselves centre of all existence, of the known sphere of reality called the universe. Astrology, palm-reading, The Secret, all speak to me-me-me. Me as centre, me as important, me as meaning. But the stars are not created with us in mind; doting parental figures in the sky do not protect us; we are alone, frightened, and still afraid of the shadows we create. We are a species that would kill for an idea we do not completely believe in, rather than attempt to struggle with a better idea that dismantles it. Even the average life is hard, lives that do not have to face the horrors of war or individual evil: often we fail, our goals never completed, people we want to love do not return it, our endeavours and struggles and hardships amounting to nothing with the full-stop of the gravestone.
Call me a pessimist if you want, but facing up to the world and our individual challenges is important. Covering all this in a veneer of angel dust or ancient knowledge or anthropocentric vanity will not make our world and its horrors disappear. What we need is a new way to tackle this; a way not arising from placing humans-as-centre but humans-as-fallible. Let’s not give in to the quacks and hucksters and fraudsters who would put us on a pedestal so that our fall into their palms is harder. Let us rather face the world, with its horror and indifference (to many, the latter is worse than the former), and make meaning ourselves.
We must not let this meaning be vain or replete with the mistakes of superstition, but grounded in reality: we are fallible but we can learn from our mistakes. We are meaningless to the universe but meaningful to our loved ones. The world will turn to nothing but right now, it is here, it is alive and we are a part of it.
It is easy to give in to the positive thinking that places us as centre. It is easy to call these people optimists and anyone, like myself, who thinks it’s nonsense as sad-faced, grey, pessimists. I do not think this will be a happy world in my life time, but that is all the more reason to attempt to make it so. If we see the world as it is, we want to make it better. By deluding ourselves into thinking we can change it by merely thinking and not acting, by worrying more about our own lives than the social and political fabric that binds us together, we have no reason to do anything. Basically, if you think things are OK, there is no reason to change it.
But things are not OK. So: let’s change it.
Who knows, maybe happiness might just decide to pay us a visit if we try to do the best we can for our fellow humans, instead of the best we can only for ourselves?
January 18, 2010
Evil and Meaning in Life
“The message is not one of simple pessimism. We need to look hard and clearly at some of the monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them.”
- JONATHAN GLOVER
To many religious believers, one of the hardest aspects of maintaining their faith is steeped in mental gymnastics: using the pole of a loving god to leap over the reality of a horrible world. There are many clever and not-so-clever ways that religious people pacify themselves; often, in the most obscure, self-congratulatory way: the creation of Original Sin, free-will, gays, drugs, abortion. The “problem of evil”, as a whole, deserves a special consideration, however, in a way that may be secularised.
The philosopher Susan Neiman has an entire reworking of the history of philosophy with this in mind. Her book, entitled Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy, ignores the usual Cartesian beginnings of modern philosophy. She begins rather with her “first Enlightenment hero”, Alfonso X, king of Castille.
Alfonso, who lived in the 13th century, commissioned several Jews to instruct him in astronomy. One, Rabbi Isaac Hazan, completed what became known as the Tablas Alfonsinas. Years after studying them, Alfonso remarked: “If I had been of God’s counsel at the Creation, many things would have been ordered better.”
Upon Alfonso’s death, his reign fell into ill repute. Commentators used this single sentence as a means to undermine his memory: one spoke about Alfonso’s entire family being struck by lightning and another detailing the “fires of heaven” burning in the king’s bedroom. There were no doubt many reasons for trashing Alfonso, but one reason we can be fairly certain of rests in his heroic blasphemy. Some even suggested that the reason the kingdom faired so poorly arose as a result of that single sentence (or some version of it).
This mattered for one very important reason: a human presumed himself smarter than god. A human saw the fallaciousness of many of god’s designs. Calling god out on an imperfection was the first step toward denying him all together. This Promethean attitude would lead us to take a firmer grasp of reality, an attempt that would begin and build science, and lead to undermining every aspect of religion. It also, however, leaves us searching for answers.
Along with Neiman, many philosophers – like Bryan Magee – have stated their annoyance with colleagues, who appear to take a lax interest in the relation between the world and philosophy. These philosophers’ main criticism is that their colleagues have either lapsed into jargon and technical obscurity about pointless subjects or are simply not interested in public matters. Nigel Warburton describes this stereotype as someone who is excellent at solving logical or abstract puzzles, but can’t boil an egg. Whether this is true or not is not my point here. Its importance rests in how Neiman takes her challenge further.
She is countering the banal, analytic tradition by engrossing philosophical thinking in what Kant considers “the first controversy in the history of philosophy” (Neiman’s words). This is the concern about appearance and reality, a problem begun with the Ancient Greeks (one need only think of Plato’s early Socratic dialogues). We are used to reading about how philosophers or thinkers attempted to reconcile their inner and outer worlds, into some sort of coherence. However, according to Neiman, this is a mistake. As she beautifully states:
“The worry that fuelled debates about the difference between appearance and reality was not the fear that the world might not turn out to be the way it seems to us – but rather the fear that it would.”
As Bertrand Russell said: “The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.” Neiman, rightly or wrongly, takes it as a given that the thinkers concerned have a sense that there is no ultimate, happy purpose to existence. What drives the greatest minds is their awareness that essentially it is our imposition of purpose onto a purposeless world that must either be confirmed as detrimental and true, or satisfying and false. The latter is the bedrock of religious thinking.
Essentially, we wonder about things that happen to us and their contingency: Are they part of some greater cause or merely happenstance? If the former, what cause and why is the cause seemingly bent on destroying us (the religious Problem of Evil)? If the latter, what meaning does existence have if it is meaningless? One can see how important answering the questions of contingency in human life becomes.
Whether Neiman is correct in her assessment, I do not think it lessens the engagement she musters. If readers disagree with her, they are forced to face her challenges, to render the axiomatic considerations of philosophers anew with a resolute distinction of demarcating Neiman’s challenge. If nothing else, it allows the reader to see classic works and brilliant thinkers in a new light. Being somewhat of a pessimist myself, I agree with her following sentiments:
“We worry about how to maintain a commitment to fairness when the world as a whole does not. We ask about the point of making theoretical sense of the world when we cannot make sense of misery and terror. Growing up makes us think more and not less often about whether history presents anything but grounds for despair, or whether hopes for progress are based on anything but wishful thinking. We may do it with irony, with dryness or passion, but we find one way or another to engage with some piece of the problem misprized as the meaning of life.”
Meaning of life? Neiman forces us then to focus on meaning in life. It is possible to take this out of the fumbling hands of the religious and look at this problem anew. Making sense of a world filled with horror may have begun its life as a problem to reconcile an arbitrary deity, but now it is a problem that matters for all: how are we to make sense of life, of meaning, when the world itself is devoid of meaning? The history of philosophy, according to Neiman, has been the fight against wallowing into despair as awareness of the horror, in the world and of the world, grew.
Now, is the time to face up to it and might be the most important questions we ever ask ourselves.
June 08, 2009
Talkin' Gibbon in the Hypercloud
If you're asked, "So, what are you reading these days?" do not under any circumstances reply The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Unless, of course, you intend to frighten off acquaintances, old friends, petrified Republicans, pie-eyed Democrats, overstaying guests, job interviewers, potential lovers– heck, just about anyone. Trust me. In this age of Life, Inc., in that mumbled admission you instantly brand yourself: prolix, patrician, and pessimistic. (Yeah, names don't hurt me, but ouch.)
Look, blame Battlestar Galactica for my parade of pedantry. You might remember–– a while back I was thinking about that sci-fi epic as "Romans: Remixed," so – as part of my new venture, Reading Books So You Don't Have To, Unlimited – I decided to check out the original track recorded by Gibbon. (Decline and Fall must have sounded pretty interesting when it premiered, in London, in 1776.)
I regret to report that, as a literary work of art, it has a few significant defects.
We'll note, dismiss and forgive its impossible length. If Bolaño could get away with it in 2666, I suppose you can too. No, no, Mr. Gibbon: what I object to is your narrative strategy: more switchbacks than a sherpa track! History moves in a straight line, Mr. Gibbon, just like a Roman road. Reading your history is like playing 'Chutes & Ladders. Like living in a hamster wheel. The pomposity and idiocy of your protagonists – and how many there are! – beggar belief. Sir, your Rome is always declining; I'm waiting for the Big Finish, okay, here's Odoacer on Italy's throne, "Goths Win!" in duodecimal overtime, and now you tell me we're playing a double-header in the Eastern Conference.
Mr. Gibbon, I am greatly crestfallen by your lack of attention to the effective construction of a cliffhanger and its resolution. You really set up a corker at the close of Chapter XXVI (the last page of Volume I in my Modern Library edition):
Such were the scenes of barbaric rage which disgraced the palace and table of the Roman emperor; and, as the impatient Goths could only be restrained by the firm and temperate character of Theodosius, the public safety seemed to depend on the life and abilities of a single man.
Bang! A worthy parting shot. Imagine my disappointment, bewilderment, and general annoyance when I began Volume II with Theodosius nowhere to be found, and your wheedling encomium to Gratian – who's he, anyway? – commandeering the page. Does "Who shot J.R.?" mean anything to you?
Furthermore, Mr. Gibbon, your paragraphs seldom feature conspicuous, easily identifiable topic sentences. They undoubtedly consternate both English teachers and test-makers of the College Board. It is impossible to cut-and-paste your work into the standard five-paragraph essay; how does this study intend to have any longevity when, as you must know by now, plagiarism is the one guaranteed form of cultural transmission left to us?
Still, I suppose we must give you credit for ingenious hilarity when it comes to the names of your characters. A tyrant named Maximin? I know of at least one consultancy and three Mike Myers movies that ought to be paying you royalties. In general, I'll admit, a sterling job. Far better than the abridged edition, published by Penguin Classics, which I tried (and failed) to read a few years ago. Now that was just a blizzard of dates and names. Ugh. Kind of like an AP exam. Like pornography without the dirty bits.
I confess, Mr. Gibbon (in the tone of an English schoolboy scolding his tutor), I'm slightly cross with you. You have so many trees in your forest that these days, there are few who have time to walk with you. Are you related to Virgil, by any chance?
Mr. Gibbon, in light of America's recent history (as epic as any you've lived through, or have written about) I'm inclined to ask different questions about your book than it seems a lot of people have been asking.
From what I can gather, we spend an awful lot of time arguing about how Rome fell, why Rome fell, the true date for the Fall of Rome; arguing whether the barbarians should have been better integrated or kept out completely, or whether Christianity or taxes or environmental pollution (lead poisoning) did them in. but as you make clear through 800 pages chronicling 500 years – your doubling-back upon a particular period six times over, framing each moment with regard to the military, the imperial family, the intrigues of advisers, the domestic economy and the "international situation" – there are no answers to be arranged in neat ScanTron bubbles.
The question to me, at least, is: "Why didn't Rome fall?" –I mean, it didn't fall for a while, at any rate. The amount of carnage, chaos and panic you describe each year, every year, 500 times over, makes our past decade look like a sunny afternoon at Coney Island. Bread and circuses in the bad times, I suppose; and between you and me, America is plenty good at baking both.
I'll admit, the Roman culture of bling looks very much like our own (but perhaps it can be said of all high societies in all of history); Abramoff and Cunningham and the K Street Project bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to your descriptions of the corrupt Roman Senate. And you puncture my hopes repeatedly, as when you sing all the virtues of Gratian's royal education, only to conclude:
Gratian neglected the duties and even the dignity of his rank to consume whole days in the vain display of his dexterity and boldness in the chase.
You do this time and time again, setting pride up for a fall like a bowling pin. I can see my cocktail conversants' point: you are a bit of a pill. But I think that in this, by this constant accrual of negative example, you have a close companion in Plutarch (even as that writer tends to celebrate his subjects): you're seeking to sculpt an idea of the character of leadership that commits such actions, whether for good or ill.
The Roman emperors were too large, their decisions too capricious and absolute: like the Olympian gods they emulated, I suppose. So distant in the past (unlike the monsters of the 20th century), so baroque in their depravity, they're almost comedic – like comic-book SuperHero/Villains – or miniaturized like the clay figurines posed by Zeus in that "Clash of the Titans" amphitheatre. It seems to me as though, as types, they comprise a vast range of leadership styles from which one might mix and match – were one an emperor. Or, shall we say, from the one-armed bandit of heredity and ambition, every couple dozen years, Time puts in a quarter and cranks out two BARs and a Cherry; every century or so, a JACKPOT. One that restores or re-creates the identity of Roman-ness to, shall we (hedgingly) say, fight another day.
It's funny: over the last decade, through volleys of the term hyperpuissance hailing from "Old Europe," America spent some time debating whether or not it is, in fact, an empire. (And then: what kind of empire is it?) As I recall, those most vociferously denying that allegation of imperialism, were actually performing that imperial role most energetically by invading Iraq.
Now, I wasn't intending to put Joni Mitchell and Colin Powell in a blender to make an Obama smoothie, but the catchphrases "You don't know what you got 'til it's gone" and "You break it, you bought it" are earworming my brain. I think that we're only now fully comprehending the ramifications and scope of the American commercial and cultural empire, now, in its fading colors: its endangerment raises its visibility, like the California Condor.
Mr. Gibbon, I don't know how you managed to accomplish this work in the space of a single lifetime. I can't even catch up on C-SPAN Congressional hearings, not even with a TiVo. I heard about that failed romance of yours; maybe… overcompensatory sexual sublimation? After all, when you finished Decline and Fall, and there was no more history for your pen to ink, your testicles swelled up. But I think I understand why you wrote it, why it consumed your life: you were trying to help your country. You had a Mad King George, tossing away his empire. By your last volume, we'd written a Constitution over here across the pond. (Can I just say, thanks for taking the time? No, seriously.)
Mr. Gibbon, noting the slowness of your voluble pen, and your considerable antiquarian nature, I think you'll find a couple of recent events most interesting. First, there was, rather is, this rather monumental financial crisis. Think of it this way: the barbarians we'd let in to protect the empire (you know, under that whole "competing self-interest" thing) – yeah, well, they've just sacked Rome. It's an inexact comparison, open to a lot of debate I'm sure, but it's a serviceable model for now.
That's sort of snowballed together with the Decline and…Whoknows of the media establishment, which delivers the raw material you and I try to make sense of. But, as you'd say, something funny happened on the way to the Forum.
President Obama made that White House Correspondents' Dinner address. Shortly afterward – coincidence, surely? – I discovered some writers you'd find really fascinating. Mainly a gentleman named John Lanchester. It's as if he's tailed the Vandals all the way to the Breadbasket, by which I mean the Financial District. Two articles, one right after the next: in the London Review of Books, Lanchester shows us how you make 3+5 = 64 with a 10% down payment. Meanwhile, over in The New Yorker, Lanchester teaches us how Wall Street bakes an upside-down cake with zero calories! It's a miracle! – no, not this financial chicanery, which would dip Attila the Hun's knee to admiring genuflection – but the speed, the rapidity, with which we are learning the detailed history of our Dark Ages.
On June 4, two other remarkable events occurred. First, Obama gave a landmark speech at the University of Cairo – an initial attempt at reconciliation and progress with the Muslim world which, in its admissions of colonialism and proxy wars, reminded me slightly of Gorbachev's Glasnöst. Second, June 4 marked the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Crackdown in Beijing: an event that, we learned in the days preceding the anniversary, has been totally excised from the Chinese historical record. Totally? Not quite. In the last few days, the New York Times has reported on a handful of Chinese activists and artists who are struggling to fill in that titanic national aporia.
Learning about this, I can't help but think back to my own American history education. Twenty years after 1968, what could I know about the '60s? To a lot of American parents, the decade was an embarrassment – "if you remember it, you weren't there" and Joe Cocker slurring Beatles' lyrics at Woodstock – and, as I recall, "The Wonder Years" was primary source material, right? At any rate, it was a handful of pages in an outdated textbook, covered at the very end of the year, and you could probably wing the one question they'd place on the AP Exam.
See, Mr. Gibbon, I'm getting the impression that history works like the human psyche: trauma results in amnesia. It took more than 11 centuries for you to collect the fragments of Western memory into a coherent pattern. We don't have that much time. But we're working fast.
Wish you were here, Mr. Gibbon. I'm sure you'd have something interesting to say. You Twitter, right?
January 05, 2009
The President As Writer
by Katherine McNamara
the tragic vision
“No ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams; and about Lincoln: “the walking up and down in Springfield on the narrow walk between the two houses, day after day, with a neighbor's baby, borrowed for the occasion, sleeping inside his cape upon his shoulder to give him stability while thinking and composing his coming speeches....”
Here is Obama, for three years a community organizer in Chicago, during the mayoralty of the great Harold Washington, the hope of black people. Suddenly, Washington dies. The young man goes to the wake and sees the skull beneath the skin.
“There was no political organization in place, no clearly defined principles to follow. The entire of black politics had centered on one man who radiated like a sun. Now that he was gone, no one could agree on what that presence had meant.
“The loyalists squabbled. Factions emerged. Rumors flew. By Monday, the day the city council was to select a new mayor to serve until the special election, the coalition that had first put Harold in office was all but extinguished. I went down to City Hall that evening to watch this second death. . . .
“But power was patient and knew what it wanted; power could out-wait slogans and prayers and candlelight vigils. Around midnight, just before the council got around to taking a vote, the door to the chambers opened briefly and I saw two of the aldermen off in a huddle. One, black, had been Harold's man; the other, white, Vrdolyak's. They were whispering now, smiling briefly, then looking out at the still-chanting crowd and quickly suppressing their smiles, large, fleshy men in double-breasted suits with the same look of hunger to their eyes — men who knew the score.
“I left after that. I pushed through the crowds that overflowed into the streets and began walking across Daley Plaza toward my car. The wind whipped up cold and sharp as a blade, and I watched a hand-made sign tumble past me. HIS SPIRIT LIVES ON, the sign read in heavy block letters. And beneath the words of that picture I had seen so many times while waiting for a chair in Smitty's barbershop: the handsome, grizzled face; the indulgent smile; the twinkling eyes; now blowing across the empty space, as easily as an autumn leaf.”
Amid desolation, beyond irony, the writer has assented to the tragic sense of life. He does not give way to hopelessness; he observes what exists and must be engaged with, not wished away. He will bend his will like the arc of a bow to a higher purpose, which is, he recognizes, as real as, but of a different nature than, worldly power. Shedding only some of his skepticism (he notes wryly), he embraces — is embraced by — a Christian faith carried in traditions of the black church: its embodiment of the Word as agency, and so, its spur to social change.
“Out of necessity,” he would write, “the black church had to minister to the whole person. Out of necessity, the black church rarely had the luxury of separating individual salvation from collective salvation.” His hard-won knowledge, as radiant as his smile, is that “the sins of those who came to church were not so different from the sins of those who didn't, and so were as likely to be talked about with humor as with condemnation.” (He knows they see that he “knew their Book and shared their values and sang their songs,” but that part of him would always remain “removed, detached, an observer among them.”)
What he loved was the thisness of the community. “You needed to come to church precisely because you were of this world, not apart from it; rich, poor, sinner, saved, you needed to embrace Christ precisely because you had sins to wash away — because you were human and needed an ally in your difficult journey, to make the peaks and valleys smooth and render all those crooked paths straight.”
Obama's beloved community was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's Church of Christ, which, for years, he attended every Sunday at 11 a.m. You can imagine his grief at the sacrifice which a media-amplified politics demanded of him, his forced parting from Wright, the man who had given him his beautiful shield against desolation, the audacity of hope.
still don't know how to put morality ahead of politics
Two writers, two post-modern presidents. One, Barak Obama, community organizer and law professor, is about to take office. The other, Vaclav Havel, dramatist, an organizer of his country's Civic Forum and its great spokesman against communist absolutism, serves as a moral voice in the world. In some respects, the distance between them is not very great.
On October 27, 1989, Havel was arrested by the old regime. Two months later, by unanimous vote, he was elected president of newly-independent Czechoslovakia. Two months after that, in February 1990, he stood before the American Congress, speaking (he understood) to the world. He had few political illusions. “As long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always remain an ideal,” he said, “a horizon” that might be approached in ways better or worse, but never wholly achieved. (Obama would call democracy a “conversation” in which the members of the polity worked out their future, based on the Constitution.) Rather, Havel spoke of what he called the “philosophical aspects” of the change that had come to “our corner” of Europe, because these would have wider implications, he warned, even for those nations, such as the United States, that had fortunately never suffered the horrors of a totalitarian system.
“Interests of all kinds — personal, selfish, state, national, group, and if you like, company interests — still considerably outweigh genuinely common and global interests,” he said. “We are still under the sway of the destructive and thoroughly vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation, and not just a part of it, and that therefore everything is permitted to him. There are still many who say they are concerned not for themselves but for the cause, while they act demonstrably in their own interests and not for the cause at all. We are destroying the planet that was entrusted to us. We still close our eyes to the growing social, ethnic, and cultural conflicts in the world. From time to time we say that the anonymous megamachinery we have created for ourselves no longer serves us but, rather, has enslaved us, yet we fail to do anything about it.
“In other words, we still don't know how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine core of all our actions — if they are to be moral — is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success. Responsibility to the order of Being, where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where, and only where, they will be properly judged. The interpreter or mediator between us and this higher authority is what is traditionally referred to as human conscience. If I subordinate my political behavior to this imperative, I can't go far wrong. If on the contrary, I am not guided by this voice, not even ten presidential schools with two thousand of the best political scientists in the world could help me.”
no one is exempt
Obama's conscience was formed by the influence of his mother and his grandparents, he has written, who taught him empathy, a virtue he places at the center of his moral code. It is, for him, the expression of the Golden Rule, which is “not simply a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody's else's shoes and see through their eyes.”
If we were a country of empathetic citizens, he writes, perhaps bitterly, “[w]e wouldn't tolerate schools that don't teach, that are chronically underfunded and understaffed and under-inspired, if we thought that the children in them were like our children. It's hard to imagine the CO of a company giving himself a multimillion-dollar bonus while cutting health-care coverage for his workers if he thought they were in some sense his equals. And it's safe to assume that those in power would think longer and harder about launching a war if they envisioned their own sons and daughters in harm's way.”
The standard he sets for the citizenry is justice: “[I]f they are like us, then their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves.”
What he requires of himself is stringent: “I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush's eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That's what empathy does — it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision.
“No one is exempt from the call to find common ground.”
a way to end the war that involved all sides in its solution
Early in 2007, in Washington, the Tory MP Michael Ancram spoke to an informal political salon — as he had talked to many such gatherings — about the necessity of talking with your enemies. For several years, he had been part of a forum working unofficially throughout the Middle East to organize exploratory dialogues among long-standing enemies. You do not have to like your enemies, he said firmly, but you do have to respect them, and dialog is part of the respect you must show them.
For background, he recounted an incident from earlier days. In 1993, he was minister for Northern Ireland. It was a time of great violence: assassinations, mass bombings, gun running, sectarian attacks. Terrible things happened. Yet, a signal had come through back-back channels from the IRA: “The war is over; help us end it.”
The words still give me shivers. Ancram, scion of an ancient Scottish Catholic noble family, educated by Benedictines who taught the necessary virtue of attentive listening, told us how the government proceeded. They revised their analysis, and understood they could not win the war. They began to change their public language, avoiding words and phrases they knew would incite adverse acts by the other side. They listened. They realized no permanent peace could be made without the IRA. They needed to open a dialog. A time came when direct talks would begin, without preconditions. The man Ancram had to face was the man who, as he knew full well, had sanctioned the death of one of his closest political friends.
The room gasped. Ancram did not flinch. It had been necessary to talk, he said, for we had to find a way to end the war that involved all sides in its solution.
the product of men
Obama wrote playfully that, as a professor of Constitutional law at University of Chicago, he sometimes imagined his work as being not unlike that of a theologian, “for, as I suspect was true of teaching Scripture, I found that my students often felt they knew the Constitution without having really read it.” Drawing the comparison a bit further, he noted how when we argue about deeply-held matters such as abortion or flag-burning, “we appeal to a higher authority — The Founding Fathers and the Constitution's drafters — to give us more direction.”
A deft play on the American ideal of a civic religion. But then he made a sharp — and, as I read him, essential — distinction in his thought between matters of faith, including, significantly, natural law, and matters of the polity. For, he wrote, our fundamental documents remain accessible after more than two centuries and if he has guided his students to them, he has nonetheless been no intermediary, "for unlike the books of Timothy or Luke, the founding documents— the Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers, and the Constitution— present themselves as the product of men.”
Pay attention to this: “the product of men.” At one time — Obama is clear about this — a man who looked like him would not have had the rights of an American citizen, but because the Constitution is a “living document, and must be read in the context of an ever-changing world,” it can be modified and adapted as the polity changes. He is deeply affronted, intellectually and morally, however, by the Republican habit of “changing the rules in the middle of the game,” by sheer force of power. He is critical of his own party when warranted, but finds, reasonably, that the Republicans have consistently used power politics at the expense of Constitutional processes.
He insists that, as citizens, no matter how deeply held our cause, we must make our case “subject to argument and amenable to reason.” (The one time he uses the verb sell, he puts it in quotes, as if with tweezers.) He is said to be a pragmatist, and if this is so, he puts himself squarely, vehemently, in line with the Founders, “as they sought to prevent not only absolute power,” but also “the very idea of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or 'ism,' any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the Jihad.”
He goes on: “The Founders may have trusted in God, but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them. They were suspicious of abstractions and liked asking questions, which is why at every turn in our early history theory yielded to fact and necessity. Jefferson helped to consolidate the power of the national government even as he claimed to deplore and reject such power. Adams's ideal of a politics grounded solely in the public interest — a politics without politics — was proven obsolete the moment Washington stepped down from office. It may be the vision of the Founders that inspires us, but it was their realism, their practicality and flexibility and curiosity, that ensured the Union's survival.”
Obama, the skeptic, the man of reason, can love the Union as ardently as Lincoln or Whitman ever did. It is a political love which might be possible only for the tragic sensibility, for we have become a nation in which torture has been justified at the highest levels of government. We have terrible truths to come to terms with, for as citizens we are responsible for the harm the nation has done, quite as much as for the good. Yet — it is the tragic vision again — he recognizes full well the limits of human reason and human intention, even when employed in good faith; nor does he suppose that good faith and politics are constant bedfellows.
In his books, a meditation on race, and a long reflection on the polity and the just and the immoral use of power, Obama — like Havel, like Ancram — has no illusion that the political conversation is not a difficult process. He distrusts the call to “bipartisanship,” which he sees, accurately, as a rigged kind of power play. He does not suppose, as I read him, that in public life people must like each other, but he does insist that they must learn to treat each other respectfully, and must talk to each other, and must, somehow, listen to each other, for in civic life reason and persuasion are the instruments of democratic governance. “Our politics are broken,” he told Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Forum. He would hope to persuade us, without falling into fatal cliché, that we, citizens, must reasonably become the change we hope for. In an interesting way, his political realism echoes Dr. Williams’s poetics.
William Carlos Williams:
In the American Grain
“Obama & Sweet-Potato Pie”
December 07, 2005
Jeremy Mercer's top 10 bookshops
After his life as a crime reporter in a Canadian city took a turn for the worse, Jeremy Mercer decided to head for Paris, where he happened upon the city's most famous bookshop, the legendary Shakespeare and Co. In Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs, Mercer describes the time he spent living in the bookshop, the people he met and his relationship with the shop's octogenarian owner. Here he chooses his 10 favourite bookshops from around the world.
"Bookstores are sanctuaries. Places to lose yourself, escape the harsh demands of daily life, find new ways to dream and new sources of inspiration. I love all booksellers; anybody who helps spread the word is doing noble work. But my favourite bookstores are the small eccentric independents run by passionate and usually slightly mad book lovers. These are some of the best."
December 04, 2005
Lifting the veil
From The Dawn:
Sughra Mehdi, Fahmida Riaz and Sadia Baloch focus on the past history of feminism which many have forgotten or are deliberately trying to erase from memory.
A champion of women’s movement: Khawaja Altaf Hussein Hali
(A few objections and their answers)
By Sughra Mehdi
With the advent of modern thought and the new era, people began to think of the lowly status of women in society. The world over movements for the education and freedom of women were initiated. In English the word “Feminism” began to be used for this movement. Its priorities were varied at different times and in different countries. The reason for this clearly is that the concept of feminism acquired breadth. The feminist movement began in India in the 19th century. The Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and the Theosophical Society stressed the education and freedom of women. Voices were raised against all those traditions in whose name women were targets of oppression and cruelty. The most barbaric form of this was “sati”.
December 02, 2005
All mapped out
From The Guardian:
I once ordered a copy of Charles Booth's 1889 Descriptive Map of London Poverty from the London Topographical Society. Weeks, then months, passed, and I heard nothing. I may even have forgotten that I had ordered it. Then, early one Sunday morning, I was woken up by the sound of the doorbell. An elderly gentleman in a deerstalker hat with a tube under his arm asked my name, confirmed that I was the intended recipient of Booth's map, handed it to me, and was off. If only all purchases were made like that.
As any good geographer will tell you, all of life lies in maps and atlases, whether it be Booth's analysis of London, or something more monumental, like Joan Blaeu's magisterial Atlas Maior of 1665, recently reprinted by Taschen. If Booth's map offers you a tour of London's streets, Blaeu's mammoth atlas is a round-the-world trip from the safety of your armchair. As Blaeu wrote, "we may set eyes on far-off places without so much as leaving home: we traverse impassable ranges, cross rivers and seas on safety ... by the power of the imagination we swiftly journey East-West and North-South at a single glance".
The 10 Best Books of 2005
From The New York Times:
By Zadie Smith.
Penguin Press, $25.95.
In her vibrant new book, a cultural-politics novel set in a place like Harvard, the author of ''White Teeth'' brings everything to the table: a crisp intellect, a lovely wit and enormous sympathy for the men, women and children who populate her story.
By Curtis Sittenfeld.
Random House, $21.95. Paper, $13.95.
This calm and memorably incisive first novel, about a scholarship girl who heads east to attend an elite prep school, casts an unshakable spell and has plenty to say about class, sex and character.
By Ian McEwan.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26.
As bracing and as carefully constructed as anything McEwan has written, this astringent novel traces a day in the life of an English neurosurgeon who comes face to face with senseless violence.
November 28, 2005
Critical Digressions: Thanksgiving, Drama, or Turkey and Capote
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
We celebrated Thanksgiving with traditional fervor and gaiety in the American capital. Being an expatriate, we have coveted invitations to native Thanksgiving dinners in years past but recently have been able to manage something on our own; Turkey, drunkenness, familial tension. It really is a wonderful sort of holiday as we all thank our Gods or each other for being where we are, kind of like that song that goes, "It's not where you're from/ It's where you're at."
Thanksgiving produces great drama: there's drama in the way the turkey is pulled out from the oven, arrives on the table, and in the way the knife is held in abeyance over the large bird, typically with the largest hands of a particular clan. And the inevitably drunk patriarch may rise up after the meal, bang his belly against the edge of table, and make slurred pronouncements causing bottles to fall, faces to redden. Some run out to sniffle or smoke. Others, in attempting to steady the old man, take elbows in the jaw. You get the picture.
Through this weekend, we watched several movies including "Capote" - all critically feted, none dramatic. Capote, the New York Review of Books notes, "might have been about anything...a bittersweet coming-of-age story with a triumphantly happy ending...[or of the] genre of celebrity decline" but it is instead the "story of how Capote came to write and publish In Cold Blood." And strangely, we were underwhelmed (and find ourselves not only in the minority but in the company of the cantankerous octogenarian, Stanley Kauffmann). The problem is that a writer writing about something, anything, is not dramatic - even a flamboyant, voluble writer writing about a couple of grisly murders.
So how does a director, even one as able as Bennett Miller, depict a series of writerly crises on screen? Facial twitches? No. Falling bottles? Perhaps. Facial twitches and falling bottles? More likely. It is, to be fair, a tall order. Bottles do fall and knives are held in abeyance in films that feature writers including "Barfly" and "Misery" but neither is attempting to transcribe a writer's inner life. In fact, the only comparable project that comes to mind is the Coen Brothers’ "Barton Fink", another pretty, flat film. Joel may tell you that drama was not his ambition but acknowledging the lack of drama doesn't make it okay.
Dellilo, for instance, has attempted the lack of drama as an aesthetic project. The following is characteristic the prose in Cosmopolis, a pretty, flat, generally poorly reviewed novel: “He didn’t know what he wanted. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut.” Not only is there no drama in the narrative trajectory of the book - man gets haircut – but there’s no drama syntactically; read together, the effect of the sentences is of briskness and there is no drama in sustained briskness.
On the other hand, there is more drama in Updike’s prose (even though Updike is not known to be a great dramatist): “With an effort of spatial imagination he perceived that a mirror does not reverse our motion, though it does transpose our ears, and gives our mouth a tweak, so that the face even of a loved one looks familiar and ugly when seen in a mirror, the way she – queer thought! – always sees it. He saw that a mirror poised in its midst would not affect the motion of an army…and often half a reflected cloud matched the half of another beyond the building’s edge, moving as one, pierced by a jet trail as though by Cupid’s arrow.” You will, of course, notice that the rich, sonorous cadence of the coupled sentences is broken by the short, comma-less, next sentence: “The disaster sat light on the city’s heart.” This is drama.
So if you’ve had enough drama this weekend, lie on the couch, arms dangling, reading Cosmopolis, watching Capote. On the other hand, if your old man didn’t get up, drop things and yell at everybody, pick up Franzen’s Corrections - a dramatic book that ends with Thanksgiving dinner - and watch the Oscar nominated "Affliction" - a character study in a bleak setting that beats "Capote" hands down. For more pointers, pontification, and of course, dramatic digressions, ladies and gentlemen, remain tuned. Right here.
Other Critical Digressions:
Gangbanging and Notions of the Self
Dispatch from Cambridge (or Notes on Deconstructing Chicken)
Literary Pugilists, Underground Men
The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National
Dispatch from Karachi
The Media Generation and Nazia Hassan
November 27, 2005
A new biography looks at a crucial time in the life of the master of spiritual desolation
Like Pascal, Kierkegaard and Baudelaire, Franz Kafka (1883- 1924) is one of the great masters of spiritual desolation. We don't actually read his work, we are harrowed by it. In German of classical directness and purity, this desk functionary of the Prague Workers' Accident Insurance Institute presents tableau after tableau of what Pascal called " la misre de l'homme sans Dieu ," the misery of man without God. All of Kafka's unfortunate protagonists -- Georg Bendemann in "The Judgment," Gregor Samsa in "The Metamorphosis," Josef K. in The Trial -- struggle against the one great, serious truth about life: Each of us is fundamentally and inescapably alone, especially in the face of death.
Reiner Stach's Kafka builds on much of this research. (Drawing by Franz Kafka and a portrait taken in 1910 (From "Kafka").
November 26, 2005
100 Notable Books of the Year
From The New York Times:
Fiction & Poetry
BEYOND BLACK. By Hilary Mantel. (John Macrae/Holt, $26.) Neurotic, demanding ghosts haunt a British clairvoyant in this darkly comic novel.
A CHANGED MAN. By Francine Prose. (HarperCollins, $24.95.) A neo-Nazi engages a Jewish human rights leader in this morally concerned novel, asking for help in his effort to repent.
COLLECTED POEMS, 1943-2004. By Richard Wilbur. (Harcourt, $35.) This urbane poetry survived the age of Ginsberg, Lowell and Plath.
EMPIRE RISING. By Thomas Kelly. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) A muscular historical novel in which the Irish erect the Empire State Building in a cheerfully corrupt New York.
ENVY. By Kathryn Harrison. (Random House, $24.95.) A psychoanalyst is unhappy but distant until Greek-tragedy things start happening in this novel by an ace student of sexual violation.
November 25, 2005
Young and Privileged, but Writing Vividly of Africa's Child Soldiers
From The New York Times:
POTOMAC, Md., Nov. 21 - Uzodinma Iweala's brutal debut novel, "Beasts of No Nation," is filled with the stink of violence. Mr. Iweala's own life couldn't be further removed from his main character's. Mr. Iweala, or Uzo, as his friends call him, grew up in this Washington suburb. He attended the elite St. Albans School, then Harvard, from which he graduated in 2004. He has perfect posture, a soft, polite voice, a scarf elegantly draped around his neck. He has just turned 23, and he has known little suffering in his young life. From where, then, did this horrifying story about child soldiers in Africa come?
"In my senior year of high school, I read an article in Newsweek about child soldiers in Sierra Leone," said Mr. Iweala, sitting in the large living room of his parents' home, his voice still hoarse from yelling at the Harvard-Yale football game. "I felt a sense of shock - this was happening in the region where I'm from and people don't know about it. I wanted to understand." So he wrote a three-page sketch about a child soldier, then put it away.
At Harvard, Mr. Iweala studied creative writing, learning the basics of character and plot development in fiction. Then, one day in his junior year, Mr. Iweala, who was co-president of the African Students Association, heard a speaker, China Keitetsi, describe her experiences after being kidnapped at 9 and forced to fight in the Ugandan civil war. Afterward, Mr. Iweala said, he told Ms. Keitetsi that his parents wanted him to go to medical school. "She said, 'Oh, that's interesting; I have no parents.' "
Deeply moved by their meeting, he dug up his old sketch and began to expand it. This time "it just flowed," he remembered.
November 23, 2005
A Self-Help Book of Science
From American Scientist:
The Velocity of Honey's 24 chapters are short meditations on questions that are probably never going to make the cover of Science or Nature, such as why toast falls butter side down and why time seems to speed up as we grow older. You might call them crossword puzzles for the scientifically minded—they offer a mental workout for its own sake but also soothe and amuse. In fact, author Jay Ingram calls The Velocity of Honey "a self-help book." Its essays "reduce stress," he says, and offer "a brief interruption in the ridiculous rush of life." Ingram, who hosts the Discovery Channel's science program Daily Planet, says he picked the topics for their appeal—adding with characteristic self-irony that this means their appeal to him. Somehow, he says, that turned out to mean there is a lot of physics and psychology and not much in between. (Ingram himself has a master's degree in microbiology from the University of Toronto.)
But the greatest attraction of The Velocity of Honey is Ingram's intelligent but gentle, even self-deprecating, personality. Maybe I'm getting old, but I"m increasingly reluctant to buy a book by a brash young man who wants to buttonhole me and convince me that science is dead or everything bad is good for me. I'd rather spend the time with someone who asks me with a twinkle in his eye whether I'd venture to guess why toast always falls butter side down.
November 20, 2005
IN January 1915, when Virginia Woolf was 33, she and her husband, Leonard, resolved to do three things: lease a house outside London; acquire a printing press; and buy a bulldog. As Julia Briggs recounts in her intelligent and well-researched new biography of Woolf, the couple never got the dog, but the creation of the Hogarth Press - named after Hogarth House, their new home - significantly influenced 20th-century literature. Purposely seeking out "work that might not otherwise get into print," they published T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Woolf herself. Freed from commercial pressures, Woolf could now pursue her most "radically experimental" leanings, and in her formal innovation, she became a pioneer of modernism.
Today, some of Woolf's books seem stylized, at times experimental for the sake of being experimental - "The Waves" comes to mind - but her most widely read and admired works, including "To the Lighthouse" and "Mrs. Dalloway," are read and admired for a reason. Briggs's subtitle pays tribute to Woolf's exploration of the inner life, her ability to capture the nebulousness of the human experience as it plays out second by second and translate it, in thrillingly nuanced ways, into words.