Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: July, 2010

Long Live the Slop

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism I: The only thing worse than other people is the absence of other people. Somebody has to be judged.

Daily Aphorism II: Indiscriminate, peevish nastiness. There’s no better tonic for an immobile soul.

I wonder whether anyone has ever pondered the stages of blogging a la Piaget. I think I’ve reached my first crisis point – something like, generativity versus boredom. Bored with myself, that is. The fact is, nothing really happens when you make your living writing. My wife comes home from work bursting with stories. Me? Unless I’m lucky enough to overhear something kooky at the coffee shop, I have nada. It’s other people who make life interesting.

Thank God for boredom. For formula, the repetition of the same.

So I caught a snippet of this author on PBS talking about popular culture as a ‘slop of formulas.’ He went on to talk about how his art saves him, because only through his art is he challenged, is he taken places he ‘does not want to go.’ Bullshit. I almost bitch-slapped the flatscreen.

I had this image of him toiling over his laptop, wincing at the blisters on his fingertips. ‘No,’ he murmurs in horror. ‘No! I can’t–I can’t write that! It’s just so… so… painful… Please! Please don’t make me! Not that!

The stories we tell ourselves. The formulas we use.

Now I’ve written some personally powerful stuff (most all of it in Light, Time, and Gravity), stuff that’s triggered real tears. But was it ‘difficult’? ‘Challenging’? No. If anything, it was effortless. The shit wrote itself.

Of all the ridiculous self-aggrandizing myths humans hoist on their individual flagpoles, none is quite so stupid as the ‘tortured artist.’ I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as writers despairing over the page, weeping over their keyboards, smashing whiskey bottles against their bookcases – I’m sure there are, just as I’m sure that many take secret pride in their antics in some devious pocket of their soul.

The thing is, these are just the things that unhappy humans do, no matter what their walk of life. Since writers happen to command part of our culture’s representational heights, it means that their self-aggrandizing myths possess a cultural authority that overshadows those of normal people. It’s the circumstances that lend meaning to our pain, and make no mistake, established writers live soft lives – so very soft. Stripped of the mythology, their ‘torment’ is more akin to a wannabe diva’s horror over a zit on prom night. The martyrdom of broken fingernails and last place in the football pool.

There’s this woman who stops by the coffee shop every once in awhile, dressed like Virginia Woolf, and always aflutter in this strange way. She always makes a point of sitting next to me, and saying, ‘I’m not going to bother you,’ before delivering a verbal version of her writerly CV, while I struggle to continue typing, my eyelids aflutter in this strange way. She speaks, and all I hear is ‘I’m special. I’m sooo special. I’m not like those people. I’m like you. Yes-yes. We have to stick together, don’t you know…’

And after I finally chase her away with a thousand tacit indications of indifference, I get this hollow feeling, like I should feel guilty, but have forgotten how. Maybe next time I should buy her a sandwich or something.

It’s hard being a writer, you see. So very hard warring against the Slop of Formula – or revelling in it, as the case might be.



The Prognostication Game

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism: When you look at markets in terms of bargainers with disparate bargaining power, the right wing argument starts to sound like: The best way to ‘free’ the little fish is to take the muzzles off the sharks.

It’s a good thing the World Cup only comes around every four years. My guess is that genuine fans are simply numb to all the theatrics, but to someone with a hockey sensibility, it is the sport of whiners, wimps, and fakers. I want to be a fan, but…

Otherwise, I thought it might be fun to play the prognostication game. The Globe and Mail had a small capsule piece on how Intel, with the backing of the insurance industry, is designing a ‘black box’ for vehicles that does everything black boxes do for aircraft: record various driving data, as well as provide video of both the interior and the exterior of the vehicle. This got me thinking about the kinds of techno-commercial monitoring we can expect in the future. Wearing clothes that can be contacted and tracked by the manufacturer. Working in stores where bio-metric surveillance systems track your expression. And so on.

The Globe and Mail also had a piece by my favourite right-wing ideologue, Neil Reynolds. A true one-trick pony, he almost always presents some pro-market, anti-government argument, without ever explaining how corporate bureaucracies larger than many democratically elected national governments, are doomed to do everything better. If he ever talks about power at all, let alone in it’s coercive sense, it’s the power of government. Well, today, he talked about something different. This time, instead of discussing the way government undermines economic prosperity (for the few), he decided to talk about the way democracy is ultimately destructive of economic prosperity. Of course, he never pauses to ponder why almost all prosperous nations also happen to be democratic nations, and social welfare oriented ones to boot. The idea is that democracy leads to pandering to the electorate, leads to fiscal irresponsibility, leads to insolvency, leads to social unrest. He cites Greece a couple of times, perpetuating the myth–lie might be the better, word–that it was the largesse of the Greek social welfare system that brought them low (Greece is actually middle of the road as far as entitlements in European nations go).  

I probably found this more troubling than I would have otherwise, simply because I finally got around to watching Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, which also happens to be a dogmatic propaganda piece.

But much of what Moore discusses, he does not need to gerrymander or skew. After 25+ years of the new economy, with fantastic economic growth where the middle-class gets nothing except job insecurity, mountainous debt, and the retirement of retirement, the wealthy have become fantastically wealthy–which is just to say, fantastically powerful. And they have been flexing those new muscles. The scary fact is that there’s more than a few people like Reynolds out there, people who think democracy is getting the way of business. Powerful people.

So, given this new social order, and given the new technologies both here and around the corner, the question is, does democracy stand a chance? The institutional design of modern democracy hearkens back to far different social circumstances. Why should we expect them to be anything other than dysfunctional as their environments slip beyond the grasp of their adaptations? When will the techno-fascistic coup happen, and what form will it take? How will resistance be possible in an age of specialized AI and universal surveillance? Will the internet feed the possibility of resistance, the way it seemed to in Iran (for a while at least)? Or will it simply prove another engine of irrationality, as it has become for vaccines, for instance.

Personally, I think the American system, which shrewdly divides the legislative from the executive, is probably the most robust form out there. Here in Canada, as in Weimar Germany, we’re simply one election away.

Between a marshmallow and a soft place…

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism: Writing is the most cowardly form of activism. Crucial, but cowardly all the same. Of all the kinds of murderers, the one most analogous to writers would be the poisoner.

I’m always aiming for that point in the middle – the ‘magical middle,’ you might say – where the draw of popular narrative forms will carry a plurality of readers through content they might otherwise find troubling. Because The Disciple of the Dog is my second non-fantasy work, I’ve spent quite some time pondering Neuropath – what went right and what went wrong.

The caveat, of course, is that there is no ‘right or wrong,’ just the experiences of tens of thousands of readers. Reviewers, like the rest of the species, reflexively universalize their judgement: they evaluate the book rather than their idiosyncratic experience of reading it. They say this is the best/worst book ever, always dropping the all important ‘for me,’ partly because their half of the book-brain fusion is largely invisible to them. All I do is send out a string of code: the trillions of neural transactions that follow belong entirely to the reader.

So for me it’s always a numbers game, and never a question of what the book really is, because there is no fact of the matter about the book. Some people were completely blown away by their reading experience. Others were left cold or were even outright alienated. Since the latter camp seems to be more numerous, I’m inclined to think that there’s a lesson or two for me to learn. There are more than a few things about Neuropath, I think, that will prevent it from being embraced by a wide array of readers.

Spoiler alert: if you’re looking forward to reading Neuropath, you might want to skip the rest of this post.

The problems that arise, I think, primarily stem from violations of form. For instance, I now think adopting psychological realism was a mistake. I had spent a summer reading James Patterson novels, and conceived Thomas Bible as a kind of antidote to Alex Cross – a psychologist-detective who in no way resembles a psychologist. Psychological realism, I’m slowly beginning to realize (I am a stubborn Dutchman, after all!), makes it difficult for most genre readers to identify with the protagonist. See the post entitled ‘Flatterature.’

In the course of researching The Disciple of the Dog I realized that I had committed a major form violation by actually mutilating the children, as opposed to simply putting them in jeopardy.

But far and away the biggest complaint I’ve come across, is that the book is too didactic, too laden with exposition, too preachy. Even though the world is in fact rife with people who talk like Thomas Bible – academics are prone to explain – what I considered a realistic depiction of an intelligent man in the throes of the Argument, struck many as a shallow mouthpiece for me and my narrow agenda.

In my early, defensive reactions to this book, I used to think, what? Bible preaches more than Settimbrini in The Magic Mountain? Haven’t these people read any Kundera? Besides, how could his preaching be more motivated? I couldn’t help but feel that people who complained about this were actually complaining more about the very premise of a ‘philo-thriller’ than my particular execution.

But the fact is, the kind of didactic exposition you find in any ‘literature of ideas’ is more of a piece with their quotidian narrative contexts. The problem, I now find myself thinking, was that the insertion of overt philosophical dialogue in a pulp genre narrative had the effect of calling attention to both for many readers. The dialogue seemed potted, artificial, and the plot seemed implausible, as a result. Like hanging stones on a spiderweb. I’ve come to the conclusion that few things are more dangerous than jarring expectations to the point where the artiface becomes visible: as I’ve said many a time, if a reader begins to smell a rat, the intrinsic ambiguity of the text combined with the cherry-picking psychology of the reader pretty much insure that more rats will be found.

This is going to sound odd, but so much of successful writing, I think, comes down to getting the reader to like you, and so getting the selfsame interpretative ambiguity and psychology working for the text.

There’s plenty of things that I love about Neuropath, apart from its criticality: the semantic layering concealed in the apparently superficial arc of the story, the ‘middle voice’ prose, the way the explanations early in the book find themselves enacted at the end, and, of course, the perverse ending, where the family, as the genre demands, is reunited in ‘love.’ But these are literary conceits.

And I’m not ready to throw in the towel and to call the book a failure. There’s still a chance that something I write in the future will redeem it, that the numbers exposed to its critical toxicity will grow. In the meantime I find myself dreadfully curious to see what kind of experiences Disciple Manning will trigger.

The No-Dogma Dogma

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism: Five clever men equal twenty fools. Four for each.

I took a couple days off to celebrate finishing the first exhaustive rewrite of The White-Luck Warrior. Still lots of buffing and polishing to do, but it’s always a massive relief to get past the ‘white page phase.’ The irony, of course, is that I’ll be praying for more white pages once I’m a month or two into the copy-edits and proofs.

Some of you might have noticed that I haven’t been all that forthcoming with book news. This is simply because I don’t want this site to become a shill for my commercial interests. What can I say? I’m a man with a message. I used to be the asshole who cleared rooms at parties, but I’ve learned, over the decades (Christ), how to become less of a preacher and more of a wit.

Even still, I will be giving the odd update for those who really don’t give a damn what I think you should think. The White-Luck Warrior cover presently doing the rounds on the web is simply a stand in for the ARCs – thank gawd. Looks like a POV shot of my childhood. The title for Book Three, I’m thinking, will be The Unholy Consult. I think it looks good in text even if it feels strange on the tongue. Also, it looks like I’ll be in Denmark for a number of talks at Aarhus University this October.

I spent some time to talking to my agent yesterday afternoon about the concluding two books of The Second Apocalypse, and my endeavour to complete it before the real apocalypse begins. You know, I’ve lived with this story longer than I’ve lived with my wife and I feel just as infatuated. With The White-Luck Warrior, I think, the stakes of the story will become much more evident. Before this point, I used to get this feeling of dismay thinking of the immense labour before me, but now it really feels like I’ve crested the narrative mountain, so much so I’m beginning to feel it’s completion as an inevitability, as opposed to the wild hope it was some six years ago.

My fantasy for my fantasies is to have The Globe and Mail finally relent and review the whole series, providing me – verbatim – with the following blurb: “makes The Lord of the Rings look like ‘Little Miss Muffet’!”

I kind of suspected my July 4th post would spur some debate – I just didn’t think it would be so damn intelligent! You guys make me nervous posting on my own site, so I can only imagine that there’s lots of you lurking out there wanting to throw in your two cents, and deciding not to. I urge everyone to join in. All you have to do is be genuinely sceptical of your conviction, and you are already have a leg up on the bulk of academics. My days are jammed anymore, so let me apologize if my responses seem sporadic and random. If you saw how beautiful my baby daughter was, you would forgive me everything.

Otherwise, I just wanted to reflect on my own battle with conviction, and talk about the No-Dogma Dogma. I sometimes find myself worried by how stable my beliefs have become over the past decade. Throughout university I was one of those guys who bounced from belief system to belief system, constantly confusing, as young men are prone to do, intellectual infatuation with knowledge of invisible things. Even still, I found it tremendously difficult to believe my specific arguments over the course of individual papers – which tended to be neurotic, longwinded affairs as a result.

So here I find myself nesting in the same thatch of claims that I nested in almost ten years ago. The fact is, I am dogmatic. I do have unwavering faith in a set of claims. I may affect suspicion of them, but FAPP, I use them as apodictic truths.

So what are they? Since you can only criticize explicit assumptions, it would probably be a good idea to enumerate them here, if only to make the shape of my bias clear.

The No-Dogma Dogma

1) Not all claims are equal.

2) The world is ambiguous because it is supercomplex.

3) Humans are cognitive egoists. We are hardwired to unconsciously game ambiguities to our own advantage – to make scripture out of habit and self-interest.

4) Humans are theoretical morons. We are hardwired for groundless belief in invisible things.

5) The feeling of certainty is a bloody pathological liar.

6) Science is a social cognitive prosthetic, an institution that, when functioning properly, lets us see past our manifold cognitive shortcomings, and produce theoretical knowledge.

7) Contemporary culture, by and large, is bent on concealing the fact of 2, 3, 4, and 5.

These are the biggies, I think, the one’s that trouble me the most because I seem to repeat them ad nauseum. I’m interested as to how the list might be altered or expanded…

Life, Liberty, and the Subsequent Pursuit

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: An author’s blog is like a peek up a transvestite’s skirt. Instead of something special, all you find is another dick.

Happy belated 4th of July to all you Americans.

Since self-satisfied piety is the order of the day for so many Canadians these days I thought I would take some time out to – surprise-surprise – dissent.

I lived in Nashville, TN for some three years while I studied at that bastion of southern privilege, Vanderbilt. This was during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the resulting impeachment hearings. And for all the carnival absurdity of those days I actually found myself falling in love with the American system of government.

I came to several conclusions during that time. First, I realized that Canadians spend a whole helluva lot more time talking about ‘being Canadian’ than American’s spend talking about being American. Second, I realized that the differences between various populations within America are generally greater than the differences between Canadians and Americans (which is probably why so many Canadians spend so much more time talking about being Canadian). Third, I realized that Canadians, on average, are more cosmopolitan than Americans – probably because our per capita immigration rates are so much higher. Fourth, I decided the rural/urban divide is much more pronounced in the US. Cowpokes and city-folk just don’t seem to mix as well down there as here.

But there’s a couple of realizations I want to single out in particular: First, that class distinctions are far more prevalent in America. I know that, despite the ‘land of opportunity’ mythology, impoverished Americans are far less likely to jump income brackets than the poor in pretty much any other industrialized nation, and I find myself wondering if this lack of economic mobility, combined with fracturing of modern media, where competition to appease our hunger for confirmation and flattery is nothing short of fierce, has led to a troubling cultural stratification.

Second, that the American system of government is amazingly robust. The thing that Canadians generally fail to realize is that Americans, in terms on feet on the ground, don’t have that many more politicians than we do – at least at the national level. And yet, in terms of population and money, those politicians find themselves juggling at least ten times as many balls. Think of Washington as a ship braving tempests ten times more severe than the HMCS Ottawa. And yet somehow, despite the crazy swells of capital, the blasting gusts of mercantile power, the ship does not capsize.

Not yet.

Lately, I’ve been hearing quite a few right-wingers saying that they believe in liberty, not equity. Though I appreciate the rhetorical force of this slogan – in a climate of PC fatigue, ‘equity’ has taken on an oppressive odour – logically it strikes me dubious in the extreme. Liberty? Liberty from what? From the unjust excesses of the market? From poverty? From the lack of opportunity? No. From the government – as though vast public bureaucracies that people can replace every few years is worse than vast private bureaucracies that only shareholders can replace. A very selective, self-serving definition of liberty indeed.

In the market, he with the bargaining power wins. Given our hardwired tendency to confuse self-interest with natural law or divine edict, it stands to reason that those with the bargaining power would think that the accumulation of more bargaining power is in everybody’s best interest. And that they would correspondingly come to think that legislative constraints on their power, constraints enacted in the name of equity, are damaging to the well-being of everyone.

Since, as research shows, our attitudes are generally fixed by who gets to us first, it should be no surprise that these bargainers would command wide sympathy among those with little or no bargaining power – in many cases, among those who actually depend on government redistribution. Think of all the Medicare grannies at those Tea Party rallies.

Well, all I can say is, keep strangling the middle-class, and we’ll see how everybody is better off serving your preposterous wealth – you included. In the meantime, how about considering liberty and equity? Modern democracy isn’t about one or the other, it’s about walking the messy tight-rope of a million feet.

Fears aside, Canadians and others would do well to remember that, given the yardstick of history, America is pretty much the first imperial power to hold itself somewhat accountable to their ideals. American self-interest is not bald. And this, considering the human track record, is out and out extraordinary. Of course, it’s fucked up. That’s what happens when you lock 300 humans in a can, let alone 300 million.

When things like unions, science, and America are criticized my question is always, Compared to what? Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything falls short when held against the yardstick of imagined ideals. The United States really is unprecedented. Which is why I think every person on the planet should be thankful there is an America.

May we always be so.

Doppelganger Blues

by rsbakker

So I had planned to follow John Barber’s installments on the future of the book in The Globe and Mail, but I’ve been finding them… uninspiring. Instead, I’ve been thinking of how I might turn this blog into something that actually aggravates the literati, instead of simply snickering behind their back. I was thinking I might run a regular spoof of some holier-than-thou literary journal like the Kenyon review, see if I can’t entice someone into a good old fashioned debate on what, if anything, makes literary values superior to genre values. Most all the literature types I meet simply take those values as given, as something painfully self-evident – which is just to say that, all their critical rhetoric notwithstanding, they’re no different than the vulgar masses they use as their negative reference group, as the marketers say. The losers they use to feel better about themselves.

Or maybe I should aim a little higher? The New Yorker, maybe? Or maybe I should tackle The Walrus, the idea being that a smaller, Canadian publication would be more likely to take notice of a gnat like me? I’m open to ideas. And I’m willing to do battle with anyone, no matter how big their terminological guns.Which leads me to the question of my own motivations. Given my own cynical outlook, it would be more than a little hypocritical to suggest I didn’t have a personal stake in all this.

Case in point. The past couple times I’ve trolled the web for reviews to add to the blurb pile, I’ve encountered a book called The Twin, translated out of Dutch original by Gerbrand Bakker. I didn’t think much of it, aside to wonder what Ger was thinking when he trolled the web and bumped into references to me. But at around 7AM (fatherhood, anyone?) I open up The Globe and Mail books section and what do I see, an extremely positive review of The Twin! What is it? From the review’s description, it’s a tea and torment special, lyrically rendered and abounding with critical sensitivity, written about people more likely to laugh at it than read it. I’m sure it’s all these things, and I’m equally sure that it will confirm more than challenge its readers expectations. Why? Because it’s generically coded only to reach likeminded readers.

I could be wrong, but I doubt it.

Now I’m a long time reader of The Globe and Mail – familiarity as they say, breeds contempt – and without exception, with every book I write, I have pressed my Canadian editors to push for a review. Nada. Not one. And this is but one engine of my animus, trust me. I even have a couple of revenge fantasies I revisit and revise from time to time. I was forged in these circles, trained and indoctrinated, until I reached the point where I use to laughingly mention reading Conan at the grad club, whenever the obligatory ‘How backward was I?’ conversations began.

Now I like to think I’ve seen my way past all that self-aggrandizing claptrap, and yet what do I do? Grind my teeth whenever all these literary brains do what they are programmed to do: which is judge me in the most superficial manner possible, then dismiss me as irrelevant.

Lock me out of The Globe and Mail.

So my Dutch doppelganger – the me I could have been had not genre saved my life – makes it through, wins the judgement I never will, simply because I can’t get a hearing, and he was slotted into the docket simply because of the colour of his literary skin. Quotidian minutae, anyone?

I really do believe that literary culture is socially pernicious, that it feeds wide-spread anti-intellectual sentiment, that conscripts critical talent which the larger community desperately needs, all in the name of a ‘literature’ that does everything that entertainment does and nothing what literature is supposed to do. And I have plenty of arguments to back up my case.

But my, doesn’t it feel like apologetic rationalization? More me real, you phony.

Eight Writerly Fallacies

by rsbakker

I’m starting to appreciate the perils of a blog dedicated to stupidity: it’s hard not to come across as a pompous ass, simply because we assume that those pointing or wagging their fingers consider themselves to be the exception. I certainly do not.

A belated Happy Canada Day to those in the know. And how about them Dutch getting under some Brazilian skin. I decided not to wear my orange socks today because after twenty years I was convinced I was jinxing them.

Otherwise, it’s time to balance the book equation. Here are some ‘fallacies’ that I think writers are prone to…

1) Expressivist Fallacy: the idea that writing is the translation of something raw, pure, and inner, into something outer, that can be translated into something raw, pure and inner. This arises from the ontological illusion that meaning is a kind of thing, rather than a type of event. The story is not in you, crying to be unleashed. You may have a jumble of pre-semantic activity that you sense as an urge to write, but just leave it at that. You translate strings of meaning in your head into strings of code on the page, which others translate into strings of meaning in their head. There are no such thing as narrative ghosts beaming through linguistic wires. Leave that shit for Oprah.

2) Posterity Fallacy: the idea that your work, though it fails to challenge any actual readers, will somehow win out over time. In sheer statistical terms, this is a preposterous hope: the odds of any work by anybody ‘living on in posterity’ were infinitesimally small even before the technological revolution. Now I’m not even sure posterity exists, and I suspect that all writers are Post-Posterity Writers. I see this particular conceit as a different version of the Ideal Philistine: a way to rationalize away what would otherwise be obvious cultural insularity.

3) Semantic Propriety Fallacy: the idea that the writer somehow essentially owns the meaning of his work, as opposed to being one interpreter among others, possessing privileged compositional knowledge. I am no more the final arbitrator of what my books mean than anyone else, simply because books don’t mean anything, brains do, and it makes no sense whatsoever to think you have some essential claim on what someone else’s brain is doing – whether your book happens to be before them or not.

4) Semantic Command Fallacy: the idea that the writer largely commands the meanings that arise from his books. The Law of Unintended Semantic Consequences means that much of what goes on in their heads is just as likely to be authored by contexts that have nothing to do for you. A sociopathic father, I’m pretty certain, would make Kellhus a much different character than the one I intended. You know you’ve fallen for this one if you ever catch yourself saying or thinking, ‘No-no-no, that’s not what IT means.’

5) Semantic Control Fallacy: the idea that the writer largely controls the meanings he encodes into his books. We now know that consciousness–even though it feels entirely integrated and self-accessible–is actually a squadron of nuts and bolts flying in loose formation. We all say things we don’t hear all the time. We are frightfully easy to influence and to manipulate, and here’s the thing, while thinking we’re in utter control the whole time.

6) Truth Fallacy: the Aristotelian notion that Truth can somehow be encoded in works, and that this is what makes literature literary. Tell me what Truth is, first, and how your definition magically trumps all the other definitions of all the other Dogmatists who have walked the planet. Failing that, concentrate on challenging assumptions, not replacing them.

7) And my favourite, the Auto-Communicative Fallacy, or what I like to call the Myth of Compositional Purity. This is the idea that writers find authenticity only by writing for themselves. I despise this one in particular for a variety of reasons. First, because of the implication that writing for your community is a kind of artistic failure. If there were ever a pernicious cultural short-circuit this is it. Second, because it takes something obviously problematic–writing only for people like yourself–and disguises it as a kind of artistic virtue, one romanticized a la consumer individualism. Nothing like a little flattery to send IQs plummeting.

8) The Intrinsic Value Fallacy: the idea that some aesthetic values are inherently superior to others. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t: the ugly fact remains that this happens to be the form all value chauvinism takes. All things being equal, you’re probably just another self-serving bigot. Me good, you bad–what a happy coincidence! Concentrate on what your words do to whom, then ask yourself how your values need to be retooled so that you can do better. Your values may feel like divine revelations or self-evident truths, but they’re really just guesses your brain makes for you.

And guesses are generally wrong.