Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: June, 2010

Culture of Commercial Flattery

by rsbakker

You can do anything, so long as you keep dreaming.

You can be anything, so long as you try, try, try.

Follow your heart.

Go with your gut.

Be an individual.

Just believe in yourself.

Just do it.

I’m sure the list goes on. The absolutely dismaying fact of the matter is that if you correlate the frequency of these and other similar slogans with what we know about human cognition and you have the picture of a fantasy world culture.

This isn’t some self-serving hothouse theoretical account of ‘false consciousness’ and the like. This is the case. We are hardwired to buy our own bullshit. It leads us into disaster time and again. And we have created a culture intent on eradicating any critical consciousness of our delusions.

Just look at the past couple years. After 25 years of fiscally conservative policies, the GDP of the USA and Canada has approximately doubled, yet the middle-class remains exactly where it was. The supposedly oracular markets delivered us to the brink of depression, and now everywhere you turn, you’re told we need to shrink government, hand more over to the markets and the corporate bureaucracies that game them, make labour ‘more flexible’ – which is to say, shrink the middle class.

That doubling of GDP went entirely to the wealthy, who reinvested it in purchasing all the volume and voices that money can buy.

I’m not an ideologue by any means, but doesn’t anybody smell a self-serving rat? Where does this end? Have the exploited been utterly robbed of the will and knowledge required to kick back.

Oh, I forgot. If they’re not wealthy, they must have forgotten to listen to their gut, and just believe in themselves, because, they could be anything they wanted to be, if only they tried, tried, tried.

It’s a cartoon, I realize. But a disturbing one to say the least.

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Blogical Thinking

by rsbakker

OK. So I started this blog with an eye to raising my internet profile, and to perhaps land some glancing blows on the literary establishment, and our bullshit just-believe-in-yourself (even-though-you-are-hardwired-to-dupe-yourself) world.

So what do I do? I check in on a regular basis. Post on a regular basis.

And tell absolutely no one that I’m blogging.

I am quite literally writing to myself. And even now, in the midst of this confession I can feel the phobic loathing rising within, the knowing-what-I-need-to-do-but-I’ll-be-damned-if-I-do-it feeling.

Supwitdat?

When I stand in front of crowds–even huge ones–my overriding desire is to argue and shock and unsettle. My whole life, I’ve had this perverse desire to prick bubbles wherever I go, and to make the babies blowing them cry-cry-cry.

But when it comes to the web? What is my problem?

It’s a strange thing being a writer. It’s out and out weird browsing the web and finding hundreds upon hundreds of people talking about you and your work. Flattering at times. Puzzling and infuriating at others. You feel helpless, in a sense, because you want to say, hey, I right here, you know. But you can’t, because you just end up weirding everyone out when you do, as well as dissolving whatever gravitas you might possess. You become just another joker when you intervene.

I thought this blog would provide a happy medium, a way to intervene while remaining aloof. And instead I actually end up sighing in relief everytime I see the big fat zero on my stats page.

Blogic dictates that I be dismayed. And yet here I am, alone in the world’s most crowded room, and so very happy!

Rethinking Critical Thinking

by rsbakker

Below is an expanded version of an article I sent to The Globe and Mail as a rebuttal to several comments made by Martha Nussbaum in defence of the humanities.

Pretty rough, but then I suppose that’s what blogs are for… Even one that has yet to be read!

Critical Rethinking

It was my final year in university, the year I abandoned my philosophy PhD to pursue a career writing fantasy of all things, that I realized I was anything but a critical thinker–despite spending more than a decade knocking around in the humanities.

Once again, we find ourselves wringing our hands about the decline of the humanities, and once again its defenders have raised the flag of ‘critical thinking’ as its social and political raison d’etre. Without the humanities, the argument runs, we would lose the collective ability to critique authority, and so exercise our rights as citizens. Without the humanities, we risk slipping back into the darkness of unquestioning obedience to faith and dogma.

I can remember manning those trenches. I’m sure I even sent out a scathing letter to the editor or two.

Now I beg to differ.

Everyone, more or less, thinks they’re a critical thinker, probably because everyone is critical. Human beings are literally hardwired to pass judgement, to evaluate everything from movies and meals to ideologies and economic systems. But being critical does not a critical thinker make. Critical thinking, we like to believe, denominates a kind of special skill, one requiring practice and knowledge to attain. A special skill that the humanities claim to provide.

I genuinely believe that humanity needs critical thinking now more than at any time in its history. We live in a time when every major ecosystem on the planet is in decline, when technologically mediated social change (think the Industrial Revolution, only more drastic) threatens to outrun our capacity for adaptation, and when the means to eradicate each other on a mass scale are not only multiplying, but are becoming more and more accessible.

At the same time we humans have numerous cognitive shortcomings: a tendency to dislike criticism, to gravitate toward flattery, to oversimplify, to universalize our values, to cherry-pick confirming evidence and selectively ignore everything else, to become overwrought when contradicted, often to the point of intimidation and outright violence–to mention just a few.

We are a gaggle of fractious children who, thanks to our technical ingenuity, have picked the lock to Daddy’s rifle case. Only good, collective decision-making can save us now.

Of course, I believe in critical thinking.

In fact, I believe in it so much that I think individuals and institutions who misrepresent it are pernicious through and through. The most disastrous obstacle to critical thinking is the blithe assumption that you are, by dint of training or disposition, a critical thinker. Our psychology insures that no human has been or ever will be a ‘critical thinker.’ The best we can hope for are moments of critical lucidity–like the one I had before bailing from my philosophy program. And the most we can hope from our institutions is that they maximize the frequency of those moments.

And the humanities, I fear, do nothing of the sort.

Human beings are rationalization machines. Some researchers even think we have a module in our brain dedicated to the production of self-serving reasons–confabulations that justify what we do and believe. In other words, we suffer matching compulsions: to judge others, on the one hand, and to justify ourselves on the other. And we all live, to varying degrees, in dream worlds as a result.

Of course, it doesn’t feel this way. As bent as it is, your inner yardstick is the only one you have, the very definition of straight and true–for you. This is why all those conservative Americans think that Fox News really is ‘fair and balanced.’ We’re literally hardwired to confuse agreement for intelligence. And this is why literature and philosophy departments are anything but the shining beacons of critical rationality they purport to be: human beings, no matter how polysyllabic their vocabularies, tend to use their intelligence to better leverage their stupidity.

The stories I could tell.

According to Martha Nussbaum in her recent Globe and Mail interview, the humanities provide the tools of critical thinking. But the tools she enumerates–logic, systematic knowledge, imagination–are also the tools of rationalization, and make no mistake, our penchant for rationalization is the great foe. Simply turn to the front page, and you’ll see its destructive consequences staring you in the face. (This begs a larger and more troubling question, which is how such an obvious and harmful fact of human nature could be so thoroughly suppressed, not only in culture at large, but within institutions that take reason as their raison). The tragic fact is that the humanities are primarily in the business of dogma substitution, not critical thinking–something which, I imagine, will strike many conservatives as obvious. They train students to better rationalize their beliefs, not how to consider them ‘critically.’

And what’s worse, they churn out cohorts of students who think they are institutionally authorized critical thinkers, and so even more blind to the ways they are continually duped by their cognitive shortcomings.

In fact, the place you’re most likely to find critical thinking is the sciences, not the humanities. The sciences train you to suspend your commitment to your conclusions pending evidence, whereas the humanities train you cook up evidence for conclusions you have already committed to–usually because they ‘feel right.’ Where the sciences train us to swim against our cognitive instincts, the humanities train us how to more effectively indulge and exploit them–how to win arguments rather than how to get things right.

To think, despite our puny three pound brains, that we can pass armchair judgement on our supercomplex world. That science is just another ‘language game.’ That markets are pernicious. That world really does consist of texts…

A happy coincidence, that one.

There is no doubt that the humanities are in retreat, but I wonder how much they themselves are to blame. Having escaped the sanctum sanctorum I continually find myself troubled by the self-righteous insularity I encounter whenever I return, the tendency to blame others for their dwindling social relevance. They convince critically sensitive young writers to avoid popular cultural, then bemoan the fact that popular culture lacks critical sophistication–blame it on flattering things like ‘corporate cretinization.’ They lament the way whole swathes of the population believe in literal translations of ancient texts, yet spend all their time writing in code to one another. Where are the public intellectuals espousing ‘interpretative literacy,’ the way, for instance, the sciences produce legions in the battle to keep scientific literacy alive?

Lock yourself in your room long enough, and it will be only a matter of time before the rest of the household begins reevaluating your square footage.

Professor, critique thyself.

Random Interlude: the Death of Posterity

by rsbakker

I’ve had one of those random days, where I seem to be running to place to place as much as running through thought after thought. I had an interesting talk about the singularity, the way creeping normalcy along a thousand different technological avenues, combined with market economics, would likely overcome all but the most fanatical traditionalist hold outs. This all fell out of a discussion on Death of Posterity and what it means for literature.

Posterity has always been used as a rationale for literary exotericism. Since it’s hard to argue that the defection from conventions does not alienate audiences, some literary authors turn to posterity to defend themselves: sure, the larger community may fail to see the value of what I do now, but some day, some day they will see.

Perhaps this held water years ago, but in the shadow of the Singularity? It is a fact that revolutions, profound revolutions, are brewing across all the sciences, some, like neuroscience, in terrifyingly consequential domains. All writers are post-posterity writers, whether they want to be or not. The kinds of social transformations we will see will make the industrial revolution look like an Oprah makeover special.

Critique of Literature I

by rsbakker

So where is the Great Defence of literary values? Where are the unconquerable arguments against spectacle and conventionality?

Let’s begin with the second first: conventionality.

Alterity, alterity, alterity. The power of literature lay in its ability to make strange, to alter contexts in such a way as to force the reader to confront their own assumptions. Thus the fetish for originality, and the resulting devaluation of conventionality. Only by breaking the rules, the assumption is, can writers force readers to confront the rules that constrain them. Thus the conception of literature as part and parcel of the Enlightenment project: only by making norms explicit can we free ourselves from what Kant famously called ‘tutelary natures,’ the tyranny of traditional normative contexts. Literature, therefore, is a critical enterprise. Experimentalism equals the overthrow of social and representational norms. Non-literary fiction, conversely, must be an apologetic enterprise. Conventionality equals the blind repetition of social and representational norms.

So far so good. The devil, however, lies in the details.

No one would deny that conventionality is the condition of communication, but for whatever reason, literary types are generally reluctant to probe what this entails.

It means, for instance, that defection from conventions can only be a matter of degree. Defect outright, and you become the proud author of noise. Since human brains happen to be primed to foist sense on abject ambiguity, you can actually get away with producing nonsense in certain circles. Not all noise is equal. This means that defection can itself become conventional. It also means that distinct convention-sets (French versus English, horror versus SF) connect you to distinct populations of communicators. The more you defect from a given set, the less you communicate to a given population.

So what perils could we expect to bedevil a literary institution? It’s simply a given that literary institutions would concoct self-aggrandizing rationales for their practice. As Disciple would say, that’s just par for the human course.

The most obvious, specific peril would be that defections from conventionality would harden into a higher-order conventionality, one all the more insidious–and therefore pernicious–because of the way we are prone to essentialize extrinsic attributes. The problem, in other words, is that we would take resemblance to forms that generated literary effects in past populations of readers as the primary criterion for what counts as literature now, regardless of whether any literary effects are created. One population’s critique is another’s apologia.

Another obvious peril, it seems to me, would be exotericism, the gradual whittling down of the population communicated to. Defection doesn’t simply challenge readers, it alienates them. With every rule you choose to follow or not to follow you are either connecting or disconnecting yourself from certain populations of readers. Since humans have a hardwired appreciation of narrative conventionality, mucking with these norms is tantamount to turning your back on the greater human community, and appealing to those who happen to share your acquired tastes.

I think it obvious that modern literary culture suffers from both pseudo-experimentalism and exotericism. Contemporary literary writers practice what might be called Naive Anti-conventionalism. I literally think they live in little, self-congratulatory bubbles, ones where they spend their time blindly repeating moribund meta-conventions, entertaining the educated classes, apologizing, yet remain utterly convinced their work is critical.

It’s a kind of cultural tragedy when you think about it.

Literature requires that writers self-consciously play both sides of the convention game. Catering is unavoidable: the question is always one of who you want to cater to. If your work reflects your values and attitudes, and you choose conventions that connect you to populations that already share the bulk of your values and attitudes, then there is literally nothing literary about your work. You are an entertainer, plain and simple–and there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you don’t pretend to be anything else.

Wake up call…

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the day: Controvert the content, not the convention.

Ruby got up at 5AM this morning – little bugger.

So, because my powers of concentration left something to be desired, I decided to go through a bunch of stuff I cut from Disciple of the Dog and see if I couldn’t shoehorn it into Light, Time, and Gravity – the CanLit piece I’ve been sitting on for a couple of years now.

That got me thinking about Literature and conventionality. A few days back I caught Sheila Rogers on the CBC talking about Miguel Syjuco’s debut, Illustrado, and going on about how its so daring and “unconventional,” something which made me scratch my head, because the book is about as po-mo conventional as can be. It reminded me of something that I’ve thought for quite some time: a book can only be ‘experimental’ or ‘challenging’ relative to a certain kind of reader with certain kind of expectations, and that when the literati crow about these things they are generally talking about readers who would never be caught dead reading the book they happen to be touting.

Let’s call this reader the Ideal Philistine. The ideal philistine is the phony reader that the literati like to trot out to flatter and prioritize their conventions and expectations at the expense of the general reading public – to make themselves special. The problem, of course, is that the actual readers of these books, far from being challenged,  generally find their values and attitudes mirrored and confirmed. What these jokers call ‘literature,’ in other words, is nothing more than another parochial form of apologetic entertainment – the very thing they pretend to scorn.

Which is why real people don’t get angry at their books any more. Commercial genre, where conventionality is honestly embraced as a means of  connecting to readers, is the royal road for the delivery of challenging content. “Experimentalism” has degenerated into a self-aggrandizing dodge, a way to conceal a conventionality every bit as narrow, tendentious, and worn out as anything in genre fiction. The difference is that genre writers and readers don’t pretend otherwise.

Literature is dead. It has been for quite some time.

Spinning Opinionated Wheels

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism: Roll a stone onto your voice, and you live in your grave. You have forever to say nothing.

Stupid aphorism – but meant to give me a kick in the ass.

No one likes a know-it-all, and they like critics even less. I happen to be both – I forever find myself rolling stones onto my voice, simply because I know how much of an arrogant prick I’ll seem if I say what’s on my mind.

You would think a blog and an opinionated prick would be a match made in heaven. Here it is, a platform I can use to spout whatever to whomever, and I find myself with a cramp in my trigger-finger.

The fact is, even after all these years and eight completed novels, I still feel foolish writing period. Insecurity complex? Not really. I truly feel like an idiot, and I truly feel like I have some kind of ‘special insight’ to offer. Call it cognitive bipolar disorder: the tendency to be utterly convinced one minute, and utterly unimpressed the next.

This is why I think a career in academia would have been disastrous for me. Pretty much every paper I worked on occasioned a crisis of confidence, the conviction of misplaced conviction. You need to sustain belief in your own bullshit for at least several months at a time to be a functional academic.

Apparently something similar is the case for bloggers. I think of at least two or three things I want to say here every day, but when it comes time to sit down and write, those things seem stupid, trite, or self-serving.

Doubt defines me. Always has. Small wonder I’m so intent on turning it into the virtue of virtues!

The Agenda…

by rsbakker

I have several axes I like grinding, some of them fueled byconceits and insecurities peculiar to me, others fueled by a bona fide fear for our collective future. I want the Three Pound Brain to be a genuinely critical blog, even though I know the neural cards are stacked against me.

So ask yourself: are you a critical thinker?

I mean literally ask yourself.

The degree you answer in the affirmative is the degree to which you are full of shit. People who go to university, for instance, are inclined to think they’re critical thinkers. Why? Because so many of them either jump ideological ship or come to a more ‘sophisticated’ understanding of their ideology. But this is simpy a case of dogma substitution. “Believing the truth,” whether you’re Glen Beck or Bill Maher, is the primary sign that you are NOT a critical thinker.

Which is why people who go to church are also inclined to think they’re critical thinkers. We are taught to think that critical thinking consists in “not believing everything we hear,” when nobody believes everything they hear, or that it consists in “disagreeing with the status quo,” as if there were such a thing as one monolithic status quo, as opposed to a swamp of thousand thousand little ones, each priding itself on not believing the other ‘bad’ status quos.

We’re born being skeptical of others, which is why critical thinking consists in not believing in yourself – realizing that you personally are full of shit most of the time, and that the ‘feeling of certainty’ is the very thing that dupes you.

So the slogan of critical thinking (and this website) should be: DOUBT YOURSELF

Because you, my friend, are full of shit, no different than me, or all the billions of others you disagree with. Or are you really going to try to convince me that you somehow actually won the Magical Belief Lottery? That you somehow lucked or bootstrapped your way into the one true dogma.

So which one is it: were you astronomically lucky, hand-picked by the Almighty God, or ridiculously skilled – never mind that all three flatter you the way everybody else is flattered by their bullshit beliefs?

Or are you just another poor benighted slob?

Hidden in Plain View

by rsbakker

The difference between privacy and publicity is simply the toil required to transform the former into the latter. Privacy, contrary to all the pundits, isn’t dissappearing, it’s just that all the labour once required to transform privacy into publicity has vanished. This blog is a case a point!

Right now it has the feel of a diary forgotten on a bus, kept safe by the unscalable cliffs of ignorance, distraction, and disinterest… I wonder what part of town we’ll end up in. Whose trash.

Parenthood and the perils of sordid fiction…

by rsbakker

A few world fantasies ago – I can’t remember when – I had this discussion about Neuropath with this guy – I can’t remember who – who was curious about whether I had children, which I didn’t at the time. His argument was that Neuropath would read a lot different to me if I was a parent. It would be more ‘sordid’ he said. The huge generic mistake I made in Neuropath, I’ve since discovered, was to allow harm to come to the hero’s kids. Apparently putting them in peril is all well and fine, but injuring them is a big no-no.

Well today I dropped off my little girl for her first day in daycare, and have lost my ability to concentrate on anything except the legion of potential harms that could befall her in the absence of her superhero father. Fear, I’ve come to realize, is a large component of parental love, indistinguishable from it at times. And I finally understand full well why parents would be so unsettled by Neuropath – it concretizes the terror that creeps through all parental love.

Which just goes to show that nothing is simple, not even a father’s love for his child. Human emotions are tangled masses, where one mode continually animates, permeates, and consummates others.

The weird thing is that not all of us experience this complexity. Introspective access to our emotions varies between people: some of us can see something of the messy bolus, whereas other only see unitary shape – ‘low-feelers’ I’ve seen them called. Perhaps this is why so many people can think that Britanny Spears provides profound commentary on the human emotional condition – why sentimentalism, cartoon representations of emotional complexity, can reek of truth for so many.

And this is why, I’m guessing, psychological realism so often backfires in genre fiction. People like their representations to match up with their experiences, and since no one wants to be the ‘too little feeler,’ they will invariably accuse your characters of ‘feeling too much,’ of being whiny and self-obsessed and the like.

But then what the hell does it mean to possess emotional conflicts that we can’t experience?

Anyway, in my next book, Disciple of the Dog, I experiment with a kind pseudo-sentimentalism to see if I can’t simultaneously ring both bells. I’m curious to see how it works…