Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: June, 2010

Three Readerly Illusions

by rsbakker

(Cheesy) Aphorism of the Day: It is better to entertain thoughts than to entertain people. It is better still, to entertain people entertaining thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about the wonderful laboratory that is Amazon’s reader review system.

There’s no fact of the matter about the intrinsic value of books. The argument is simple: Consciousness is a product of brain function. Meaning is a product of consciousness. Meaning, in other words, is all in our head.

Here’s an interesting theoretical cartoon for consideration. We have a physical object before us, one that encodes a semantic object. The tendency is to attribute the clarity and stability of the former to the latter, to conflate the semantic content with the material vehicle–to weld our experience of reading to the thing we hold in our hands. Let’s call this the Illusion of Semantic Objectivity. We seem to have a hardwired tendency to think of our reading experience as a kind of thing, and to use the logic of things to structure our subsequent reasoning about books and readings.

The vast majority of readers, I would also hazard, actually think they possess exhaustive knowledge of what they read. “This book is over my head,” is a comment only rarely found on Amazon. Let’s call this the Illusion of Semantic Exhaustion: the impression that one has gleaned, if not all the meaning, then all the significant meaning, from what they have read. A philosophy professor friend of mine once complained about the sexism of Neuropath, perhaps the most layered reading experience I have ever attempted to create. When I told him that the sexploitation so common to the larger cultural genre was something I was mucking with, he told me that “if he didn’t pick up on it, then it either wasn’t there, or it wasn’t significant.” Not only do people think their reading is a thing, they think it is a complete thing. The possibility of more nuanced, more sophisticated readings, escapes them–even when they preach the promiscuity of the signifier!

This ties into the third illusion I wanted to throw out for consideration. The vast majority of readers also, in my opinion, assume they are more intelligent than the books they read. The general, which is not to say universal, tendency is for people to think that they are more intelligent than others. In fact, there is a correlation between the lack of intelligence and the propensity to think oneself more intelligent. The dumber you are than others, the more likely you are to think yourself smarter than others. I’m convinced that this lies behind the tendency of people to label things they don’t understand ‘pretentious,’ simply because the alternative, the fact that you have encountered something you are incapable of understanding, is too unpalatable. I know I’ve caught myself doing this innumerable times, and I can only imagine how often I fail to catch myself. Let’s call this the Illusion of Semantic Authority: sense that your semantic evaluation somehow trumps the evaluations of others. That somehow you’ve won the Magical Interpretation Lottery.

Now I can feel the Horde of qualifications storming the gates, but simplification is the point of heuristic theorizing. Since no conceptual cartoon can ‘capture’ the reality of the thing, the best we can hope for are cartoons that let us leverage some kind of actionable understanding.

All three of these contribute to what might be called the Illusion of the Book, the sense that reading is perceiving, that rather than an idiosyncratic ‘fusion’ (as Gadamer might say) of you and the semantic possibilities encoded in this material object, you are simply the passive observer of some object hanging in public space.

A couple points in service of my ongoing polemic against literary culture: You would think the literati, who are well aware of the conflation of the material and the semantic (some have even raised theoretical empires about the dichotomy) would be immune to this tendency, but this is almost certainly not the case. For all their rhetoric they still think of literature as a kind of thing possessing, as things do, abiding properties–rather than a psychological event. They fail to realize that something is or is not literary based on what it does–and this is demonstrated, I would argue, by the way ‘literate reviews’ on Amazon exhibit all the same characteristics as ‘lay reviews,’ only expressed through a veneer of greater sophistication.

Regarding my own books, I would say that they tend to generate a wild range of semantic experiences, some positive, some negative, for a wild range of readers, and that is better than generating a narrow range of semantic experiences for a narrow range of readers. Some books make nary a ripple going in. Plop-plop-plop. Others splash your ass with cold water. That’s what I’m after: an experience that makes you feel the need to shower.

Concealing Children from Themselves

by rsbakker

Some days the craziness of it all just rises up and swamps my boat. Before my daughter was born, it seemed I could wrap it all in the safety of cynical derision. Now, knowing what lies near the bottom of the technological toy-box, I literally find myself frightened.

Every single time you turn on the news what do you see?

Human being prosecuting their interests at the expense of other human beings in the name of justice.

What is the single most obvious question this raises?

HOW can human beings prosecute their interests at the expense of other human beings in the name of justice?

And the uncontroversial answer: Because we, as a species, are hardwired to confuse our parochial interests with universal truth.

What is the most prevalent relevant message broadcast by our culture?

Believe. Believe in yourself.

In other words, confuse your parochial interests for universal truth.

The most important thing we need to see past, in other words, is the very thing our culture is most bent on concealing… This is as true of philosophy departments as it is of Baptist churches. Now how crazy is that?

Has anyone ever come across any scholarly work on this… What should we call it? Collective cognitive duping? Social ignorance denial?

Seriously. What the fuck is going on?

I mean, I have my own pet theories, about how cognitive self-regard probably paid high reproductive dividends in small communities where mutual, material interdependency necessitated compromise. In ancient contexts, the truth or falsity of theoretical beliefs had no bearing whatsoever on the fitness of believers, which is just to say that the ‘theory instinct,’ the biological imperative to believe nonobservables, is adaptive in some other, non-cognitive sense, perhaps for the way it facilitated group cohesion in the face of competitive stress.

This is what makes science an socio-cultural accomplishment: with it, we discovered how to organize our practices to maximize the cognitive utility of our theory instinct – even at the expense of its social utility.

But how could all this evolve into the demented fantasy world we presently live in? Is it capitalism (flattery sells)? Is it democracy (what politician would allow a public education system that taught children how to guard against all the ways they will dupe themselves, when such knowledge would challenge their voter-parents’ cherished delusions)?

But then, as far as I know, no one has even attempted to institute a truly critical educational system? As far as I know, the issue isn’t even up for debate? Concealing children from themselves seems to be the unquestioned gospel of all our education, K thru PhD.

WTF? How could this be possible?

Dining on ourselves…

by rsbakker

So I was thinking I would write about the Gee, 20 Something, given that I live a mere two hours away from the epicentre. After reading through the post summit coverage, I was left with the feeling that it amounted to little more than the most expensive political photo-op in Canadian history. Apparently, after spending 25 years kicking the middle-class in the nuts and delivering the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, it turns out another, even bigger kick in the nuts is exactly what we need.

My primary interest going into the summit was China. I’ve always been mystified by how a community of democratic nations that allows their currencies to float in open markets could allow an authoritarian one that fixes its currency to continue to leverage ever greater trade imbalances. Corporate lobbying? Free trade ideology, so dogmatic that it is pursued even when it’s so obviously one sided?

Of course, the Gee, 20, let China slink about in the safety of the summit shadows.

For the record, I genuinely believe that markets are an incredibly efficient way to distribute commodities, in certain contexts, given certain conditions. I also think we have a pretty good idea what those contexts and conditions are. I find it ironic to the point of inducing migraines, that the promoters of markets – which are so effective precisely because of the way they spontaneously organize communities in ways that solve super-complicated problems of distribution – can be so simplistic as to think that they solve all problems.

Markets require populations with market-amenable traditions. Markets require a plurality of players to propose ‘solutions’ – products – that they can then select between. Markets require robust legislative frameworks to minimize the chances of producing calamitous outcomes. Yet people think they can plant markets in any cultural context and they will magically flourish (think of the Bush administration’s economic reorganization of Iraq). People think that two or three immense corporate bureaucracies (central planning, anyone?) actually constitute genuine competitive markets. People think markets are oracular, that they are a kind of social end, rather than another social means.

Markets do not give a damn. They will starve as blithely and efficiently as they will feed (though when they work for us, their efficiency will generate enough to prevent starvation). They reward bargaining power, not ingenuity or piety or determination (though when they work for us, they will often reward these things with bargaining power). They are every bit as imperfect as that other maligned human institution: the government.

The question with markets, always, is how do we make them work for us.

Am I an ideologue for thinking this?

It flatters English professors to think the world is made of texts, because it renders their specialty the specialty. Likewise, it flatters Economics professors to think the world is made of numbers. But the world is made up of people living their lives working for the benefit of other people. And middle-class prosperity (though it might slit our environmental throat) seems to be a cornerstone of the industrialized world’s success – not ‘GDP.’ Erode that cornerstone, and you erode the foundation of that success. After twenty five years of middle-class stagnation, after twenty-five years of funnelling more and more bargaining power to the upper class, I think it’s high time we cut our losses, and start new experiments with ‘leftist’ economic policies, perhaps resign ourselves to slower, but more evenly distributed growth.

Markets are as good at distributing goods as they are at concentrating bargaining power. Tax the rich now, so that we don’t have to eat them later. Lord knows they’ve been scarfing down all our surplus labour.


Well, brand my ass!

by rsbakker

Simon Houpt has an article in The Glode and Mail about new research that confirms some common assumptions regarding branding. It turns out that some are more susceptible than others–no big whup, there. But what is really interesting is the way branding alters their self-perceptions. Apparently, if you give some people a pen with an MIT logo on it, they actually feel smarter. Give them a Dos Equis, and they feel more interesting.

Pretty much everyone I know thinks they’re immune to advertising–I mean how could they be manipulated when they are such shrewd critical thinkers. What could be more superficial than identity claims?  What could be more hollow than using consumer purchases to define who you are? But such is the culture we live in. We all succumb to this, I imagine. For me, I’ve turned the absence of logos on my clothing into a logo, into a statement of who I am. The fringe benefit is that it happens to be the cheapest way to fly, identity-wise.

Maybe that’s my identity. Cheap loser guy. So fucking be it.

Anyway, the thing that killed me about the article was the way this kind of aspirational manipulation was spun as a positive, as something marketers are giving to consumers… What? Flattering, fictitious selves?

But then, why not, when indoctrination into fictitious selfhood is what our culture is all about. This was an article about how marketers condition populations of consumers to feel certain fictitious things about themselves regardless of their scruples. Since everyone reading the article has had their hardwired default egoism groomed and moulded by a lifetime of false claims and misleading imperatives about how they’re in charge, how they’re immune, how they need only listen to the ‘tutelary natures’ (animal instinct and childhood indoctrination) within them, how could a little aspirational advertising hurt?

It really is the case that people do not give damn who is pushing their buttons, so long as those buttons remain hidden behind the veil of their pseudo-self-enmpowerment. The problem, of course, is that science has finally kicked down the door to the cockpit, and is in the process of figuring out not only which buttons do what, but how to fly the plane.

Like my brother-in-law use to say to me all the time: “I know I’m not addicted to cigarrettes because I could stop anytime I wanted to. I just don’t want to.” This, in a nutshell, is the illusion that condemns us: the inability to see that those vagrant wants and desires that move us to do this or that often belong to someone or something quite other than ourselves.

That our brains consist of three pounds of skin–not muscle.


by rsbakker

The title, by the way, was inspired by Russell Smith’s column in The Globe and Mail today. Apparently the world of literary writing is so cool, that only your moral highmindedness keeps you from getting laid by innumerable beautiful woman.

If words could smell…

Daily Aphorism 1): ‘Shallow’ is a word shallow people use to think themselves deep. So repeat after me…

Daily Aphorism 2): The best way to think deep is to make youself small. Profundity, like economy, all comes down to scale.

Picking up from yesterday, let’s do a little heuristic theorizing here, keeping in mind that we’re talking about cartoon generalizations of something supercomplicated. I will argue in defence of what follows, but only because I think they are as good guesses as any, when it comes to devising and delivering a certain kind of writing.

Let’s call the tendency to judge ourselves (and to a lesser extent, our loved ones) according to intentions Auto-exceptionalism. This is simply a psychological fact. The claim I’m making, then, would be that, in the absence of specialized training, the default for readers of fiction is to identify with characters who act the way the reader intends – that such characters become Subjunctive Selves.

A character becomes a Subjunctive Self the degree to which their acts conform to a reader’s hypothetical intentions.

The ‘literary’ convention, then, would be to contravene or subvert this hardwired tendency. The ‘generic’ convention would be to satisfy it. I scare quote literary and generic, of course, because I think actual outcomes, actual readers scratching actual heads, as opposed to hypothetical ones, are what distinguish literature from fiction in general. Given this definition, Don Delillo, for instance, is a pseudo-literary writer. We’ve convince whole generations of talent to celebrate themselves and turn their back on their community. Whereas people like me, China Mieville, Jeff Vandemeer–anyone who games conventions, not for the sake of entertaining specialized tastes, but to connect with dissenting audiences–are the only people writing literature worthy of the name. We have devised a system that tricks all our geniuses into entertaining under the guise of challenging, so us poor slobs are all you get.

Flattering, I know–it makes me nervous for that very reason. What can I say? There’s a reason Dune changed my life, not Catcher in the Rye. Just as there’s a reason Rowling and Pullman inspire public outcries, not Atwood or Updike. Dune reached into a house devoid of books (other than the Bible) and challenged me – thanks to a subjunctive self named Paul Atriedes.

And this is just to say that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with providing Subjunctive Selves for your readers to identify with. There is no literature without connection, and there is no connection without some degree of conventional fidelity. Subjunctive Selves should be regarded as a powerful tool, not as – and I admit to being guilty of this (as in my reading of The Road) – a failure of literary imagination.

In a sense, I guess what I’m trying to do here is lay out a different view of literature, one which reconceptualizes generic conventions as channels to various readers, and so prioritizes their self-conscious instrumentalization, rather than writing in blindness with all the ‘great literary voices’ of our generation. And one which takes human nature as revealed by the sciences seriously, rather than hiding behind Ideal Philistines (readers who WOULD be challenged IF they were to read your work, but almost never do) and vague theoretical generalizations (post-modernism, psycho-analyis, and the like).

One which sees literature as an actual psychological event possessing real social consequences. And perhaps, on occasion, provides reason to feel smug and superior…

A Question of Character

by rsbakker

So I succumbed to the hype and dropped the big bucks to pick up Justin Cronin’s The Passage. When I first heard about this work, I had high hopes – here was an honest to goodness literature professor leaping into the commercial genre trough. The first deflating blow came when I read Tanya Huff’s negative review in The Globe and Mail. But, as someone thoroughly acquainted with the difficulty (as well as someone convinced of the outright importance) of writing across generic boundaries, I immediately gave him the benefit of the doubt. When you mix tropes, you’re likely to be poxed by both houses. The literary people telling you to set aside that silly genre stuff and do something serious (by which they mean, in accordance with our specialized, status serving tastes), and the genre people telling you to get over yourself, jettison that pompous claptrap and be normal (by which they mean, become another apologist for our assumptions).

Then, out of curiosity, I checked Cronin out on the web, assuming, since I had read he was an academic, that he would have opinions – that he was actually literary in the sense of being socially engaged. I checked his university website, and his author site, only to find… nada.

So, he’s an entertainer. Big fucking whup. I’m no different than the next guy. I like my titties the way I like my explosions: big. So I’ll read something just ‘for fun’ for a change, as opposed to fooling myself into thinking I being so damn critical all the time – that’s just a trap that leads to higher order dogmatism, right?

So I buy the book, begin reading, and what do I find?

I find myself being schooled in characterization.

If there’s one recurring criticism of my books that stands out from all the others, it’s that many readers find my characters ‘unlikable.’ I find them fascinating, but that’s beside the point. And I out and out despise sentimentalism – which is the reason I found The Road such hardgoing – as well as a kind of betrayal, if that makes any sense.

We all have these idealized, fantasy conceptions of ourselves: this is simply a matter of fact. You quite literally do not know who you are – none of us do. In test after test, self-deception is the rule when it comes to self descriptions and self prognostications – and to make matters worse, our memory is literally primed to snip and revise to make it devilishly difficult to detect.

These are the characters we identify with. Reflections of our idealized, bullshit selves. So the father in The Road, for instance, never contemplates cannibalism because the reader – almost all them – assumes he would be the magical exception when starvation hits him with an instinctual hammer. Tell people stories about parents eating their children during ancient sieges and they think, What the fuck is wrong with those people? Those people. Not us people. Those.

The primary problem, it seems, is that we judge ourselves according to our intentions, and others according to their actions. So everybody literally sees everybody else falling short of what they would do, were they in that situation. And of course, research has shown that we are rarely so generous, upstanding, what have you in act as we are in intention. And there’s a host of biases that run along these same lines, ones that convince us we have the biggest three pounds in the room.

I look at Disciple of the Dog as my first true narrative experiment in this direction. The challenge I set myself was to create a character that milked these intuitions even as he pissed in them. What I learned from the beginning of The Passage was just how effective this milking can be. The character of Jeanette, the back-story Cronin gives, is – intellectually speaking – laughable. Almost unbearable for its cliche sentimentality – not a single step sideways that I can find – and in all fairness to Cronin, maybe that’s yet to come.

But I’ll be damned if it didn’t work.

I often joke about fatherhood turning me into a sentimental old fool. Maybe I am. Maybe I should give it all up and begin writing jingles for Cheez-Whiz or something equally… spreadable.

My Wife’s Pity

by rsbakker

A big fat THANKS for everyone who helped this address go viral. I went from zero to thousand-hit hero in the space of 24 hours. Privacy – then poof!

Publicity does have consequences. So as I’m dropping my wife off for work, she says, “I feel sorry for you and your blog.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because you’re so honest about your feelings. I mean, if I was someone who didn’t know you, I think I’d think you need therapy.”

And so I find myself inducted into the world o’ blogging. A place where honesty doesn’t so much bite, as nibbles, and nibbles, and nibbles. A place of pure surface, and all the corresponding imperatives to look your best.

Leave it to your wife to remind you forgot to shave and tuck your shirt in!

Okay. So I’m still trying to figure this all out, while in the midst of doing the final rewrite of The White-Luck Warrior. I don’t know how to change that stupid tagline, for instance. I’m still confused on how to easily approve all the comments that are made. I already feel the itch of accumulated obligations.

And my baby girl is grunting like a reptile in the background…

Have I mentioned that I suffer from organizational dyslexia?

The Globe and Mail – Canada’s Paper of Apologetic Record

by rsbakker

This is actually what I meant to post before being distracted by all that environmental nonsense. I mean, why can’t the frogs just shut up and let the water come to a boil?

According to the G&M editors, the public financing of political parties needs to be ‘revisited’ because of its ‘failure to make politics cleaner or more inclusive.’  Why has it failed to improve democracy? Because ‘voters have not been convinced that their votes count more’ – something proven, they contend, by the continuing decline in voter turnouts.

This is one of those arguments that sends a shiver down my spine. Why? Think about it. The argument is that democracy has not been improved because the voters do not think its been improved. Democracy, according to them, is all in the eye of the beholder. This argument, coming from Canada’s most authoritative editorial board, is either the product of folly or a wilfull intent to deceive. Either way, it’s some scary shit man.

As social psychologists who track this stuff have shown, the unsurprising fact is that the more transparent political parties are to private interest capital, the more their policy serves those interests. And this is just common sense. Given all our genius for rationalization, we need to do everything we can to insure that public institutions are not hijacked by private interests. Everybody thinks God is on their side. Which is why, despite 25 years of middle-class stagnation, you have people like Neil Reynolds arguing that what the middle-class really needs is even more fiscal conservatism. This guys buy their own bullshit, which is what makes them so fucking dangerous.

The first half of the argument, that public funding has done nothing to ‘clean up politics’ they never really address, save citing the Tories ‘In and Out’ scandal – as if only the utter absence of corruption would be the only thing that could justify the legislation. If anything, the In and Out Scandal demonstrates the tendency of money to corrupt democratic institutions, and therefore, the need to tighten the legislative screws, not cut the bolts!

Horrible, horrible. The Paper of Canadian Record. Oh my.

The Philosophical Environmentalist

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism: Leave metaphysics to the philosophers. Some things are so stupid you need highly trained specialists to make them sound smart.

A couple of nights back I watched yet another environmentalist get their rhetorical ass handed to them by a pseudo-academic right wing thinktank type. The American Enterprise Institute guy began with a superficially appealing false dilemma, then dove into another nice sounding fallacy of equivocation, with some guilt by association thrown in for good measure. The environmentalist called him on none of it. My wife suggested it was the interviewing journalist who should have jumped in, but since they like to pretend to be photographers – the invisible viewpoint behind the frame – I don’t expect much from them. They too invested in their phony self-images too actually consider the possibility that they are regularly manipulated. How can you manipulate someone who is invisible?

For quite some time I’ve been worried by how much better prepared right wing pro-industry advocates. This morning I happen to bump into a couple of environmental advocates at the coffee shop, and after discussing this problem, I decided that I’m going to actually try to DO something – for a change.

The idea is to collect right-wing arguments, cull them for patterns, then put together a little rhetorical manual for environmentalists. The tentative title will be The Philosophical Environmentalist: How to Win Arguments and Get Mother Nature Laid

On another note, it’s nice to see some familiar e-faces! I hope to make my first browse through the first comments soon. I just need to figure out how this damn blog thing works.

Future of the Book I

by rsbakker

Daily aphorism: The world is a supermax prison. If you see the light, it means the guards have foiled your attempt to escape.

John Barber, a regular for the G&M, has started a series of stories on the future of the book. So I thought I would tag along in my parasitic way. In this first article he critiques the conventional assessment, suggesting that the flame of literature is alive and well, despite all the professorial handwringing over the death of the book. He cites Raymond Mar, a cognitive psychologist at that bastion of bureaucratic dysfunction, York University, who makes an apparently pretty optimistic induction: the book survived film, radio, and television, so it will survive the internet as well.

Of course this reasoning is solid only if the analogy holds between those past technological innovations and what we’re experiencing today – which it obviously does not. First, it’s not the ‘internet’ which is the culprit, it’s information technology in general. Ghettoizing the culprit makes the problem seem more manageable. Second, the difference between information technology and the analogue technologies he invokes could not be any more stark. A radio finds its place within a realm of uses, and stays there. The same for film. The same for television. Information technology, which allows the innovation of innumerable virtual machines – iclones call them ‘apps’ – just refuses to stay put. We are standing on technological marbles today in way that is utterly unprecedented.

The transition is actually more analogous to the dawn of writing systems and literacy. The question we then need to ask is whether the bard survived the book, which he did not. This gives us grounds for a pessemistic induction regarding the book in the coming digital madness.

This is why I’m inclined to be pessemistic about the books future. I’m squarely with those futurists who think that all business models that rely on the propriety control of information – the ‘book,’ remember, is inseparable from the commercial practices that make it possible – are in for a hard ride.

To whit, the music industry. I was in HMV yesterday and was astounded to find them selling books, as well as twice as many movies as CDs. It’s if they’ve decided to hoard all the endangered species together in their bid to make a living off information.