An Electric Conversation with Hollis Robbins on the Black Sonnet Tradition, Progress, and AI, with Guest Appearances by Marcus Christian and GPT-3

by Bill Benzon

I was hanging out on Twitter the other day, discussing my previous 3QD piece (about Progress Studies) with Hollis Robbins, Dean of Arts and Humanities at Cal State at Sonoma. We were breezing along at 240 characters per message unit when, Wham! right out of the blue the inspiration hit me: How about an interview?

Thus I have the pleasure of bringing another Johns Hopkins graduate into orbit around 3QD. Hollis graduated in ’83; Michael Liss, right about the corner, in ’77; and Abbas Raza, our editor, in ’85; I’m class of  ’69. Both of us studied with and were influenced by the late Dick Macksey, a humanist polymath at Hopkins with a fabulous rare book collection. I know Michael took a course with Macksey and Abbas, alas, he missed out, but he met Hugh Kenner, who was his girlfriend’s advisor.

Robbins has also been Director of the Africana Studies program at Hopkins and chaired the Department of Humanities at the Peabody Institute. Peabody was an independent school when I took trumpet lessons from Harold Rehrig back in the early 1970s. It started dating Hopkins in 1978 and they got hitched in 1985.

And – you see – another connection. Robbins’ father played trumpet in the jazz band at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the 1950s. A quarter of a century later I was on the faculty there and ventured into the jazz band, which was student run.

It’s fate I call it, destiny, kismet. [Social networks, fool!]

Robbins has published this and that all over the place, including her own poetry, and she’s worked with Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. to give us The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006). Not only was Uncle Tom’s Cabin a best seller in its day (mid-19th century), but an enormous swath of popular culture rests on its foundations. If you haven’t yet done so, read it.

She’s here to talk about her most recent book, just out: Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition. Read more »

Context Collapse: A Conversation with Ryan Ruby

by Andrea Scrima

Ryan Ruby is a novelist, translator, critic, and poet who lives, as I do, in Berlin. Back in the summer of 2018, I attended an event at TOP, an art space in Neukölln, where along with journalist Ben Mauk and translator Anne Posten, his colleagues at the Berlin Writers’ Workshop, he was reading from work in progress. Ryan read from a project he called Context Collapse, which, if I remember correctly, he described as a “poem containing the history of poetry.” But to my ears, it sounded more like an academic paper than a poem, with jargon imported from disciplines such as media theory, economics, and literary criticism. It even contained statistics, citations from previous scholarship, and explanatory footnotes, written in blank verse, which were printed out, shuffled up, and distributed to the audience. Throughout the reading, Ryan would hold up a number on a sheet of paper corresponding to the footnote in the text, and a voice from the audience would read it aloud, creating a spatialized, polyvocal sonic environment as well as, to be perfectly honest, a feeling of information overload. Later, I asked him to send me the excerpt, so I could delve deeper into what he had written at a slower pace than readings typically afford—and I’ve been looking forward to seeing the finished project ever since. And now that it is, I am publishing the first suite of excerpts from Context Collapse at Statorec, where I am editor-in-chief.

Andrea Scrima: Ryan, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to start with a little context. Tell us about the overall sweep of your poem, and how, since you mainly work in prose, you began writing it.

Ryan Ruby: Thank you for this very kind introduction, Andrea! That was a particularly memorable evening for me too, as my partner was nine months pregnant at the time, and I was worried that we’d have to rush to the hospital in the middle of the reading. But you remember quite well: a poem containing the history of poetry, with a tip of the hat to Ezra Pound, of course, who described The Cantos as “a poem containing history.” Read more »

We Have To Talk

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Henri Matisse created many paintings titled 'The Conversation'. This, from 2012, is of the artist with his wife, Amélie. [Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia].
Henri Matisse created many paintings titled ‘The Conversation’. This, from 2012, is of the artist with his wife, Amélie. [Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia].
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not so much a book of fantastic adventures as a book of conversations (and pictures). It’s right there, in the first paragraph: “What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” Lewis Carroll and his illustrator John Tenniel delivered just that, a magical masterpiece of conversations and images. A contemporary reviewer said it would “belong to all the generations to come until the language becomes obsolete.” Six generations later, the language shows no sign of obsolescence, but the same cannot be said of conversations if the great oracle at Google is correct. One million hits for “the death of conversation,” it proclaims, listing a gloomy parade of studies and essays stretching back many years.

“Every visit to California convinces me that the digital revolution is over, by which I mean it is won. Everyone is connected. The New York Times has declared the death of conversation,” Simon Jenkins grumbled in The Guardian, seven years ago. Is it true, and if it is, who cares? That sounds like the start of an interesting discussion. Is daily conversation of any value and if it fades away, who’s to say the time saved can’t be better used? Robert Frost thought that “half the world is people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.” Read more »

Cerebral Imperialism

Neurons The present is where the future comes to die, or more accurately, where an infinite array of possible futures all collapse into one. We live in a present where artificial intelligence hasn't been invented, despite a quarter century of optimistic predictions. John Horgan in Scientific American suggests we're a long way from developing it, despite all the optimistic predictions (although when it does come it may well be as a sudden leap into existence, a sudden achievement of critical mass). However and whenever (or if ever) it arrives, it's an idea worth discussing today. But, a question: Does this line of research suffer from “cerebral imperialism”?

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The idea of “cerebral imperialism” came up in an interview I did for the current issue of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, with transhumanist professor and writer James “J” Hughes. One exchange went like this:

Eskow: There seems to be a kind of cognitive imperialism among some Transhumanists that says the intellect alone is “self.” Doesn’t saying “mind” is who we are exclude elements like body, emotion, culture, and our environment? Buddhism and neuroscience both suggest that identity is a process in which many elements co-arise to create the individual experience on a moment-by-moment basis. The Transhumanists seem to say, “I am separate, like a data capsule that can be uploaded or moved here and there.”

You’re right. A lot of our Transhumanist subculture comes out of computer science— male computer science—so a lot of them have that traditional “intelligence is everything” view. s soon as you start thinking about the ability to embed a couple of million trillion nanobots in your brain and back up your personality and memory onto a chip, or about advanced artificial intelligence deeply wedded with your own mind, or sharing your thoughts and dreams and feelings with other people, you begin to see the breakdown of the notion of discrete and continuous self.

An intriguing answer – one of many Hughes offers in the interview – but I was going somewhere else: toward the idea that cognition itself, that thing which we consider “mind,” is over-emphasized in our definition of self and therefore is projected onto our efforts to create something we call “artificial intelligence.”

Is the “society of mind” trying to colonize the societies of body and emotion?

Read more »