Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: September, 2010

Calling All Perves!

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism: A blog is a kind 0f linguistic crotch shot: no matter how you shave your message, only the perves are going to get it.

Okay. So I finally had a chance to troll through the comments. I feel like such a loser for not replying individually, but like I say, I really need to police the amount of time I spend on this thing. With Ruby, I literally only have seven hours a day with which to: A) read the paper (the single most important thing a writer can do, I think); B) write my ‘eight hundred’ words; C) look after book related sundries; and D) keep up with my reading.

Only (C) feels like work, though more and more (D) has felt progressively more labourious – frighteningly so.

Out of the comments, the one that tweaked me the most was the question of what constituted ‘challenging.’ 

Of all the ‘thou shall not’s’ you run into in this business, I’ve never been able to understand the prohibitions against ‘messages’ and ‘didactics.’ These embargos, it seems to me, assume that the only good writing is the kind of writing that doesn’t alienate anybody whatsoever. The problem is never whether a book has a message or information–the problem isn’t even whether that message or information alienates readers–the problem occurs when that message or information alienates too many readers for your work to be commercially viable. Though the jury’s still out, I think this very well might the case with Neuropath.

There is no cosmic antithesis between having something to say and good writing, no law of consciousness or psychophysics. None whatsoever. It really boils down to running and managing risks with real readers. And, as with most risks in this business, it primarily turns on the question of execution.  For instance, no matter what you think of The Da Vinci Code, you have to admit Dan Brown has a knack for filtering large amounts of information through relatively spare plots and prose–and this is what makes his work so interesting to so many readers. And what makes him, in my books, more culturally relevant and ‘disruptive’ than a thousand Tom McCarthy’s preaching to a thousand literary choirs.

Some books give you information that is challenging. Some books give you morals or messages that are challenging. Some books simply open challenging spaces for the reader to fall into–what I try to accomplish with my fantasy novels. The difference between these books and those that simply aim to entertain, either by thrilling you with action, soothing you with sentiment, or flattering you with little intellectual and aesthetic buzzes, is that they leave a mark. Either they teach you something you didn’t know, snip this or that idealogical tendon, shake your confidence in implicit assumptions, or leave you puzzled by problems you didn’t even know existed. These are the books that DO something, not to airy-fairy formal abstractions like ‘genre’ and ‘culture,’ but to real readers.

So that when you hear a politician blather about ‘individual responsibility’ as though it were as plain as the nose on your face, as opposed to horrifically occult and complicated, you have a second thought. So that when you hear a given argument for the one thousandth time, you actually pause and listen for the first. So that you question ideology, liberal or conservative, not when you see it in others, but in yourself, because you have a greater sense of human foibles, and you have been reminded of the stupendous, conceit-defeating complexity of this thing we call life.

Books that ‘challenge’ are the ones that prick and poke at the pinhole we call human perspective, worrying the edges, so that more light shines out and in. Ones that help us think one thought too many.

This is why I’ve always taken the polarity of the responses I get to my work as a kind of yardstick of success. I am proud to be a ‘love him or hate him’ author. Just how much a book challenges depends on the individual psychology and life history of the reader. There is no such thing as an Ideal Interpretation, just what happens as a result of actual readings. For some of my readers, I’m sure I’m nothing more than another entertainer, with scarcely a thing to say that they haven’t heard and dismissed before. For others, I’m sure I’m just a pompous bore who happens to have mildly interesting yarn in the works. I’ll be damned if I don’t keep on trying to freak all of them out somehow, but in the meantime, it all comes down to the aggregate.

Advertisements

Ruby Thursday

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism I: The best caveats are made of grease.

Daily Aphorism II: A blog is where opinions go fishing for affirmation and land embarrassment.

 

Okay… I think I’m finally finished railing at my insignificance.

How many people have I blamed? Let’s see: the literary establishment, the Canadian media, and, oh, the entire human race. They’re just too stupid to get me, you see.

Starting to sound like a suicide bomber’s internal monologue. I’ll show them

Before, when these hard-done-by moods got the better of me, I would simply party too hard for a few weeks, piss my wife off, before climbing back into something resembling maturity. Now that I’m a father, however, all of that has changed. It’s amazing, really, how much fatherhood revises your relationship with your ambition. I’ve always been overly competitive and madly ambitious–saddled with a manic, pulsating ego. That great line from Scarface should have been my motto: The world, Manny, and everything in it.

The world. And if I can’t have the real thing, then I will build myself one of my own. (The keyboard was just smoking while I was working on The Unholy Consult today.)

I still feel all these things, but their tracks no longer run clear through me. One look at my daughter’s smiling face and this Old Me is instantly derailed, box cars piled into bunny hills, tanker cars cracked like eggs. The Crank vanishes into the sound of nearing sirens, and I become a Sap, glorious unto her and myself.

Happy Birthday, Ruby. You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

What a breathtaking year it’s been.

More than Hope Floats, you know…

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism: The foolish speak from the stomach, the clever from the tongue, the wise from the rectum, for they alone know where their shit comes from.

I’ve found myself thinking about my little Canadian Literature experiment of late, and what it means to belong to a culture as fractured and compartmentalized as ours. (I find it spooky that some of you, quite independently, have been thinking the same thing!) First and foremost, the idea was to write a genre piece, a work that conformed to the expectations of a certain audience of readers: ‘an extended meditation on the quotidian minutae of post-colonial, prairie/urban, gay/straight Canadian life.’ Second, the idea was to write something that would genuinely challenge those readers, something that took all the rhetoric about originality and criticism seriously–not because I thought this would win me a spot on the best-seller lists (there’s nothing people rationalize quite so fiercely as their sense of alienation)–but because I thought this would be an oh-so clever way to demonstrate my point: ‘literature’ is simply another generic cult of apology, distinguished only by the extent of its hypocrisy and social pretensions. I tried to lay out the chasm between writing about ‘everyday life’ and writing for it.

I literally wrote the thing as a way to spit in the literary eye. I wanted to show this particular group of readers what it’s like to be dragged across alien conceptual ground, the way the mind reflexively balks and dismisses, no matter how ‘open’ it claims to be. I wanted to show them what it’s like to have their values pinned to the page, how ‘social commentary’ becomes indistinguishable from aristocratic derision when you find yourself on the wrong side of the rifle’s scope.

I wanted to show them why so many people hate them–I mean literally despise, to the point of closing themselves to all intellectual discourse. I wanted to show them all the cultural damage they had done… How, despite all their rhetoric to the contrary, they effectively stuff ever more votes into the pockets of conservative demagogues.

Light, Time, and Gravity was supposed to be my version of Run, Updike, Run, by Harry Angstrom.

These were all the things I wanted to ‘show,’ all the while knowing they would not be seen. I assumed, for instance, that people would simply frown and mutter when the philosophy became too deep. As one person literally told me, “If I can’t follow it (with my impressive IQ and years of education), then there’s something wrong with it.” Literary readers, as a rule, I think, don’t want to be challenged so much as read things they think other people would be challenged by–which is to say, read something that makes them feel special. “I don’t get it,” carries the ring of condemnation no matter where you stand on the genre colour wheel. I assumed, in other words, that the things that made the book challenging and original would be the things that literary readers would see as flaws, that I would have to endlessly argue with any potential editor to keep them in the published draft.

The only way to make something like this work, I decided, was to release it within a certain kind of interpretative frame, one provided by ‘authorial reputation.’ I used to always be amazed by teaching, how all I had to do was stand in front of a chalkboard and this room full of people would open themselves ideological tinkering, if not outright rewiring. That they would let an ass like me fuck with their worldview. An authorial reputation, I think, provides a similar kind of sanction: if you’re notorious for being provocative, then people are more likely to see your provocations as provocations, rather than lapses in aesthetic judgement, or even worse, evidence of overweening pretension. I like to think I’ve witnessed this first hand as the reviews of The Prince of Nothing slowly accumulate across the web. In the beginning, more than a few reviewers were quick to condemn me as a poser and pseudo-intellectual. Now, not so much.

But our culture has become frightfully compartmentalized. The web, which was supposed to blow open the doors of culture–to ‘flatten everything’–seems to have had the opposite effect. Since we’re hardwired to reflexively seek out affirmation and confirmation, rendering everything equally available has meant our paths of least resistence no longer take us across unfamiliar territory. We can get what we want and need without taking detours through things we didn’t realize we wanted or needed. We can make an expedient bastion out of our parochial tastes.

As a fantasy writer first and foremost, I knew my reputation was nonexistent in the literary world. To them, I’m just another commercial shill, if I was anyone at all. Given the deafening silence with which the review community has greeted Disciple of the Dog, I’m starting to suspect that this isn’t likely to change any time soon. To think I was worried about a feminist backlash! Yeesh, talk about vanity. Cookbooks are getting more attention, for chrissakes!

So what the hell do I do with Light, Time, and Gravity now? Sit on it in perpetual perpetuity? Damn the torpedoes and release it through some small press? Use a pseudonym–perhaps create a faux-literary superstar and play a joke on the world?

Maybe I should just stick to writing pop songs…

Lee Rourke, Tom McCarthy, and something about prizes for hookers?

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism: Confusing critical for pompous is the refuge of the ignorant. Confusing critical for ignorant is the refuge of the pompous. All that distinguishes a pompous fool from an ignorant one, you see, is their favourite brand of confusion.

The brain sorts far more than it ponders. This fact dominates so very much of culture. Nothing goes untouched. Nothing comes away unscathed.

My argument has been fairly simple all along. The more you cater to in-group expectations with your writing, the less you challenge, and the more you entertain. Now you may think you have all kinds of critical things to say, bemoaning this or that horrific cultural fact, but unless you are actually putting yourself into contact with dissenting audiences, you are doing little more than reaffirming well-known verities–apologizing.

How do you reach out to dissenting audiences? You write commercial genre fiction. In other words, you instrumentalize the social function of generic conventions. This is not to be confused with gaming the formal functions of generic conventions, something which has itself become a boiler-plate convention of literary writing. When you game the formal functions of genre you are interested in the what: in the kinds of micrological semantic effects various expectations produce when played against one another. When you game the social function of generic conventions you are interested in who: you recognize that genres–like all conventions–are communicative modes (as opposed to platonic cages), specialty channels that put you into contact with certain kinds of readers.

Enter Lee Rourke and Tom McCarthy and their recent ‘conversation’ in last Saturday’s The Guardian (for the full text of the interview see http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/18/tom-mccarthy-lee-rourke-conversation), where they discuss McCarthy’s aims in his recently released C, which has been shortlisted for the Man Booker.

I knew I was in for a treat when I read this:

TmcC: I don’t know if C is controversial. It certainly rejects the default mode dominating mainstream fiction and most culture in general: this kind of sentimental humanism. If you don’t kowtow to that you’re going to upset a few people.

In other words, “I don’t know it’s controversial, but that said, it is controversial.” And it continues…

LR: People get a little anxious when someone comes along and tips the apple cart, for sure. But is this refusal to respect that order a cultural refusal or a political refusal?

At this point I found myself becoming very interested in the term “people.” Exactly who were they referring to?

TMcC: It’s a politics of culture. The question is: what is culture for? Is it a vanity mirror for liberal society to see itself reflected back in the way it wants to see itself? Or is it something else, something more disruptive? I think culture should disrupt; it should be troublesome. If it’s a mirror, it should be the cracked one that Joyce talks about; or Lewis Carroll’s one that opens up on huge abysses; or the mirror in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, where you look in to it and you don’t see yourself reflected back, instead you see the void – you see death at work, “like bees in a hive of glass”. Fucking great line.

Okay. This is the Literary Dogma. Of course, ‘culture,’ whatever the hell it is, has myriad functions, (healing and deceiving among them) but I think McCarthy would concede as much and deflate his claim accordingly, say something like, “culture, at its best, should be critical.” We always overgeneralize when we speak on the fly.

LR: True. I’ve always responded best to art that disrupts culture at that level, not just our responses to art within culture.

TMcC: I’m just doing what I think the novel should do, and trying to achieve the things the novels I most admire achieved. I don’t necessarily want to be contrarian, it’s just that in order to do what needs to be done you need to reject a certain set of assumptions, certain models of subjectivity – for example, the contemporary cult of the individual, the absolute authentic self who is measured through his or her absolutely authentic feeling.

“I don’t necessarily want to be contrarian”? A little bit of tendentiousness here. Otherwise, for me, this is where he takes a gigantic leap into the Trite. Why? Because I’ve been institutionalized, for one, bludgeoned with rhetoric about the ‘decentred subject’ so many times that I find myself mystified that people can still pretend its shiny and new. Because I’ve been converted, for another. If these guys want to be genuinely radical, as well as culturally relevant, then they need switch canons, begin looking into what the sciences of the mind and brain are showing us, as well as their crazy ass happening-as-we-speak social repercussions.

The question I have is this: given that C has all the structural and ideological hallmarks of a novel written by a literary specialist for those with some specialized literary training, how can it be anything other than pseudo-critical? Books choose their readers as much as otherwise, and confirmation is almost always the name of the game. How many Christians go into a bookstore thinking, “I want to read something that turns my belief system upside down”? How many post-modernists? Nobody actively seeks disconfirmation, and this book literally reeks of a very particular system of assumptions: it makes a pole of the first page and hoists its flag, beckoning the likeminded, and warning away those with dissenting views.

Even if C, thanks to all the press it’s receiving, becomes wildly popular, how many readers are going to find themselves challenged as opposed to gratified? Gratified that they caught so many cultural references. Gratified that they have read something shortlisted for a Booker. Gratified they can reference the book at the next seminar or the next intellectually posh dinner party.

And how many of them are going to say, “Yeah… We’re not quite the subjects we think we are. You see, Serge…” Not a one, because this is the Dogma of that tribe. It goes without saying.

In fact C reeks of in-group self-congratulation as much as this ‘conversation’ does. It is literally filled with ‘peacock references,’ names dropped not so much to advance an argument or an aesthetic as to declare erudition, and more importantly, belonging to a certain, very special tribe.

And you know what? I actually don’t have any problem with that. This is simply what humans do, sing little me-me-ditties beneath what is audible. I’m doing as much right now, and I’m sure you can hear them far better than me.

And it isn’t even the hypocrisy that burns me. As an act cultural subversion, my guess is that C is actually an F. Nothing is disrupted. Everything remains the same. And Tom McCarthy, for all his brilliance and penetration, remains yet another potentially critical wheel that does not turn, another ‘literary’ figure who writes primarily, if not exclusively, to the likeminded–to people like Lee Rourke, whose chin must be bruised for all that avid nodding.

No. What really troubles me is the way this hypocrisy has been institutionalized. So long as you treat ‘culture’ as a what, which is to say, as a abstract construct, a formalism, then you can congratulate yourself for all the myriad ways in which your abstractions disrupt those abstractions. But as soon as you treat ‘culture’ as a who, which is to say, as a cartoon we use to generalize over millions of living, breathing people, the notion of ‘disruption’ becomes pretty ridiculous pretty quick. All it takes is one simple question: “Who is disrupted?” and the illusion of criticality is dispelled. One little question.

The conceit is so weak. And yet somehow we’ve managed to raise a veritable landfill of illusory subversion upon it. ‘Literature,’ we call it.

 Says a lot about the power of vanity, if you think about it.

As well as why I’m probably doomed to fail.

The White-Luck Cover

by rsbakker

Thought I would pop in with the real cover for The White-Luck Warrior.

WHITEluckWARRIOR_CR2

I like.

Writing in the Shadow of Doom…

by rsbakker

Feeling even more of a Lunatic in the Wilderness today. I figured I would lay this latest twist out so you can see just how frustrating and capricious this business is. I’m used to bad breaks: My first meetings to discuss the sale of The Darkness That Comes Before were cancelled because of 9/11. The second because of the SARS outbreak. And the financial crisis happened pretty much the instant Chris Weitz found someone willing to invest in the pilot for a cable serialization of The Prince of Nothing. I’ve managed to persevere, nonetheless.

As you know, I’ve been bumming because of the absolute absence of any reviews for Disciple of the Dog. To be blunt, this quite simply means the book is doomed, at least here in Canada. In an effort to deny me any targets for my blamethrower, my agent just contacted me with Penguin’s review-copy mailing list. Apparently all these places received copies: The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The National Post, The Ottawa Citizen, The Winnepeg Free Press, The Edmonton Journal, The Calgary Herald, The Montreal Gazette, The Vancouver Sun, The Chronicle Herald, The Time’s Colonist, The Walrus, and over thirty other different media outlets, including websites.

Now, I appreciate that it’s a numbers game, but when I think of all those review editors and producers each looking at the book, then placing it on the freebee pile with a shrug–all of them!–I realize that I am ruly truly writing in the shadow of doom. There’s a reason why midlist authors seem to linger for only so long before disappearing altogether: the madness of modern media driven culture is that you’re not deemed important unless you are deemed important.

Obviously my name didn’t ring any bells, which is to say, even though all these folks are the gatekeepers of the Canadian writing scene, they know absolutely nothing about me. Now I can understand this happening in a place like America. Whenever my friends or family start lampooning Americans for knowing so little about Canada I always remind them just how monstrously big the USA is: Americans can’t even keep up with what’s going on in their own country, let alone follow events in a country with a smaller economy than California. The media mountain is so much steeper and taller in the US.

But media in Canada are, like, way small, man. Like knolls in a farmer’s field. You would think that out of all those outlets, at least one would wonder whether I was, you know, at least kind of interesting. I guess not.

Compare this situation with the Canada Council for Arts grant application I filled out a couple years ago (on the advice of Rob Sawyer). For years now, I’ve joked about how the vast bulk of ‘Canadian Literature’ can be described as ‘extended meditations on the quotidian minutae of post-colonial, prairie/urban, gay/straight, Canadian life.’ I literally used this as a recipe for pitching a novel, and lo and behold, without so much as a call or a how-do-you-do? I received a cheque for $20,000 in the mail a few months later (and so Light, Time, and Gravity was born).

So, on the one hand, I pitch the status quo on a lark, and I get rewarded with a bunch of taxpayer dough. On the other, I actually do something different, actually try something critical and original, and I’m pretty much ignored, especially by those who make the most noise about being critical and original.

Go figure.

The pigeonhole has no bottom, believe you me. I used to be so naive as to think I could climb out, but now I’m starting to think that it swallows everyone in the end. I wonder about all the other cranks and crackpots out there, about all the other sparks that have been snuffed by relentless inattention. It’s no accident that eulogies are so filled with cliches.

After all, it’s neurophysiology that I’m up against more than any passing cultural bigotry. The brain pigeonholes everything it encounters to better lower its caloric load, to economize. We sort far more than we ponder. Novelty, when we encounter it, is either confused for something old and stupid or comes across as errant noise. Things were this way long before corporations and capital.

So I find myself wondering what I should do. Maybe I should just resign myself to my fate, numb the pain, mellow those revenge fantasies. Become a fatalist.

But then there’s nothing like bitterness to keep that fire scorching your belly. And there’s nothing I fear more than becoming old and complacent. Only the well-groomed don’t have chips on their shoulders.

The Tyranny of the Aphoristic Mood…

by rsbakker

To write is to judge.

To write is to fume and to pine, to hanker and to despise.

To write is to hope.

To write is to dwell in contradiction: to be all-powerful within the text, and utterly helpless without. Nothing is so egotistical and frail as the written word. To dictate meaning to another soul. To remain pinned to the page, motionless, while the thoughts you would tether run cruel, cruel circles.

To write is to seize another’s hands with your throat.

To write is to be a forgotten Son of God, more abject than divine. To write is to be the saviour of those who do not even care to crucify you.

To write is to be confronted with your own infancy, to find yourself stranded at your beginning, again and again and again. Either you are a witness to your irrelevance–because the words come when they come–or you stand stuttering, shouldering the indeterminate future.

To write is to continually speak into the absence of having anything to say. The beautiful babble.

To write is to be soundless.

To write is to offer yourself up as tinder so that others might burn.

To write is to be a cynic, laughing at the meek, crying for the bold. To write is to be earnest, to chisel verities into the stone of history–to be a Sayer of What Has Been Said.

To write is to make a parade of your thoughts, a carnival of your bigotries. Ink is your garish cosmetic. Images are your stunts. To write is to explain the aphonia of clowns.

To write is to take yourself way too seriously. You rehearse and revise, rehearse and revise, until you begin thinking in catechisms, speaking in parables. Until your friends begin to fear you…

Second guess the stories you pretend to tell.

 

Feeling very aphoristic today, if you can’t tell. Don’t get me wrong: I despise the Cult of the Writer. I actually find it difficult watching movies where the main character is a writer: they just seem to reek of vanity. I grew up in troubled household, busting my ass in burning fields. The life I now lead seems preposterous for it’s freedom and ease. I have this abiding feeling that at any moment the productivity police are going to come up to my table and politely ask me not to make a scene.

So why are so many writers heros? Aside from good old human psychology, I blame it on the old ‘Write What You Know’ literary maxim.

Like so many literary maxims it sounds appealing at first blush. After all, how can you be honest–authentic–unless you write ‘what you know.’ But like all maxims it has a flip side: Telling practitioners what they should do is at once telling them what they should not do. Telling writers to only write what they know is telling them to studiously avoid all the things their lives lack–adventure, romance, spectacle–which is to say, the very things that regular people crave.

So this maxim has the happy side-effect of policing who gets to communicate to whom, and so securing the institutional boundaries of the literary specialist. Not only is real culture left to its own naive devices, it becomes the unflagging foil, a kind of self-congratulatory resource, one that can be tapped over and over again to confirm the literary writer’s sense of superiority. Thus all the writerly heros, stranded in seas of absurdity.

Hasn’t anyone smelled this rat before?

Kind of feeling like the lunatic in the wilderness today.

 

The Big Whup

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism: The human inability to distinguish projection from discovery, fabrication from revelation: if God’s laughter had a sound, this would be it.

I ration the amount of time I allow myself to spend working on this blog to prevent it from cutting too deeply into my writing. As a result, I really don’t have time to give the resulting debates the attention or care they deserve.

And yet…

So, Mina: I was actually biting the hypocrisy bullet, not trying to absolve myself. So in this case, my responses are thoroughly conditioned by a number of extraneous factors: I’m starting to fear, for instance, that my Canadian and UK publishers failed to send out any review copies of Disciple of the Dog, which has ramped my perennial fear of failure through the roof, which has made me that much more reluctant to delve into subject matters that might potentially alienate more casual readers of my work.

But this kind of disclosure is far from giving up on rationality altogether. It’s saying that humans are so biased, so inclined to attach unwarranted conviction to their claims, that they need to regularly remind themselves of all the ways they could be duping themselves. It ain’t pretty, I know. It reeks of adolescent indecision, and smacks of narcissistic navel-gazing. But then human reason isn’t pretty.

The alternative, to erase the motivational facts of composition, to write as if wholly invested in one’s subject matter, is nothing more than flattering make-believe.

So William, I’m sure all the extraneous factors that you suggest are colouring my arguments are in play in some manner. My status anxiety regarding my fantasy writing is certainly a factor: I turned my back on my academic tribe so that I could pursue latrine-digging. I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

But I wish I could say the same of your ‘No Big Whup’ suggestion.

I regularly face a similar line of critique when discussing theories of consciousness: I’ve lost count of the number of times people have shrugged away the crazy things that Metzinger or Dennett claim by suggesting that the ‘fragmented subjectivity’ they’re discussing is ‘old hat’ in post-modern circles. It takes quite some time to convince them that not all fragmented subjects are equal, so my guess is that you will not be convinced by the following…

My guess is that either 1) you’ve been following the literature long enough to become unimpressed, 2) you think all the recent research simply confirms what the skeptics have been saying for millennia, or 3) you think some understanding of ‘gaming ambiguities’ is implicit in all human discourse.

If (1) is the case, then I’m at a loss. The more I read the more bummed I become. The trends are not pretty. If (2) is the case, then my reply to you is the same as the reply I give to the post-subject theory-heads: the difference between philosophical speculation and empirical research is pretty stark. The skeptics were only guessing, and I can’t help but think that Sextus would be out-and-out dismayed by the findings that are continuing to pile up. Add to this the way these findings are being instrumentalized (check out the Neurofocus website) by various powerful institutions, and you have a pretty good picture of the difference science makes. If (3) is the case, then all I can do is point to Freud. You could argue that humanity has always possessed some implicit understanding of the Unconscious, which Freud simply dressed up as a ‘sublime realization.’ Making things explicit, making the vague and the assumed available to conceptualization, is pretty powerful stuff. Cultural game-changing stuff, you might say.

So, until the majority of campuses open Centres for the Study of Human Stupidity, until education has been re-engineered into something that actually combats our cognitive shortcomings, until the majority of people stop considering themselves ready-made ‘critical thinkers,’ until Oprah starts having more shows on Doubt and Disempowerment than she has on Belief and Empowerment, until human society gets its crippled head out of its collective ass and stares long and hard at the craziness soon to come, I will continue ranting in my woefully small corner of the cultural room. Especially now that I have a baby daughter.

Otherwise, I think the things we’re learning about experience and cognition possess implications that we are just beginning to chase through Old Culture, which is to say, Culture lacking and explicit knowledge of its cognitive shortcomings. For any graduate students out there, searching for a novel and provocative dissertation topic, there’s a cornucopia of possibilities here.

So, just for instance: Once you realize that we’re hardwired to game ambiguities, then you can interpret various schools of literary criticism as gaming styles. Take a deconstructive reading of “Bartleby the Scrivener,” one that makes explicit the ‘aporia of agency.’ Bartleby is at once utterly abject, held hostage by his preference to do nothing, and he is also, much to the narrator’s chagrin, the office despot, commanding the lives around him through his inaction. Now from a certain deconstructive standpoint, this reading simply manifests the aporetic nature of language and narrative: the text itself, you might say, presents its own contradictory structure.

This is what I actually believed at one point. Sheesh. (I can only hope that I look back at this post some day with the same twinge of idiotic embarrassment)..

Now I’m inclined to guess that deconstruction is a kind of wilful gaming, one where critics utilize the brain’s ability to impose pattern on noise, to see Madonnas in water-stains, to produce a certain kind of (melodramatic) semantic effect: contradictions or apories. First you game and rationalize the meaning toward A, then you do the same for not-A, then you take a step back and claim that ‘you’ had nothing to do with what happened at all–you literally anthropomorphize the text, insofar as you attribute a certain kind of intentionality to it.

This is just one example of the kinds of work that need to be done.

The same holds, I think, for my (cartoon) understanding of science as a kind social prosthetic for our cognitive shortcomings. (I think I only sound Popperian, but I really haven’t read all that much philosophy of science). There’s a kind of interpretative well-spring here, one which, the hope is, will help ameliorate the wilful blindness of our culture.

Your other charge, William (if I remember properly: I’m writing this at the coffee shop–instead of working on The Unholy Consult) is that I’m simply creating a kind of clever, self-immunizing theoretical position, one where I don’t have to ever admit being ‘wrong.’ I actually take this criticism very seriously, since it was this suspicion that eventually led me out of both the Derridean and the Wittgensteinian labyrinths. For quite some time I’ve feared that all I was doing was cobbling together my own, explicitly epistemological version of these interpretative mindsets. Anytime you elaborate a position which takes it’s own apparent shortcomings as a kind of evidence for its veracity (consider deconstruction’s response to the charge of performative contradiction), or more devious still, as grist for your mode of theoretical interpretation (as when Wittgensteinians consider critiques of the game metaphor as a kind of move in a game), you are treading thin cognitive ice, I think.

You’re right to point out that you can game the kinds of claims I’m making to conjure the illusion of theoretical invulnerability. But the fact remains, my position turns on empirical findings. It really is only as strong or weak as those findings. You could take the research that Gladwell gathers in Blink to contest much of what I say, I think, to paint a somewhat different picture of cognition (only slightly more flattering, however).

All told, I think it’s a very different and quite significant ‘game of giving and asking for reasons’ that I’m advocating, one that seems to possess a vast and largely unexplored implicature.

The true size of the Whup, however, remains to be seen. What Metzinger calls ‘Enlightenment 2.0’ is just getting afoot.

Biting My Own Bullets (Owich!)

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: A blog is what happens when hypocrisy gets knocked up by vanity, and decides to put the baby up on the Internet for adoption.

Make no mistake, I’m pimping a very specific world-view–and a controversial one at that. At the South Park end of the cartoon spectrum it comes down to: humans are too stupid to see their stupidity. At the Marvel end (because there’s no escaping cartoons): humans unconsciously game ambiguities both to affirm their mythical self-identities, and to confirm their various cognitive and social commitments.

The science, I think, leaves little room for doubt. I like to think that nothing more than a relatively short implicative hop separates my global theory from the specific empirical findings that motivate it. But I urge anyone unfortunate enough to encounter this discouraging thesis to investigate the matter themselves. My theory, after all, is a theory, another story about invisible and pernicious forces.

Another attempt to shed light on the darkness that comes before.

But just because I haven’t been able to find my way past this present position (for several years now–a record for me), doesn’t mean that others, most others, won’t see it all as a bunch of bullshit. You live with any set of ‘facts’ long enough and they will come to seem self-evident: I know I’ve been surprised on several occasions, sitting, having a beer with people who got quite irate at the suggestion that humans beings chronically and compulsively bullshit themselves. Some people have to be eased into the fact of their own self-serving stupidity.

Beyond that, there’s several arguments and complaints that I’ve resigned myself to facing over and over (and over) again:

1) The charge of hypocrisy, that I exemplify the very things I criticize. My answer to this is simply, “Yes. That’s my point.”

2) The charge of over-simplification. I actually have a dim view of this criticism, primarily because I came to think of it as a pseudo-critical crutch during my philosophy days, as well as–aside from equivocation–one of the best ways of building strawmen to knock down. Things are always more complicated, so saying as much, it seems to me, simply amounts to dressing the obvious in critical clothing. For this charge to have any force, you need to point out the factor that I’m missing, and argue what makes it relevant. (Having met a handful of ‘pro-fantasy professors,’ I’m afraid, doesn’t do the trick). Otherwise it devolves into, “You’re missing something,” an empty blandishment if there every was one.

3) The ‘human achievement’ counter-argument. How could we be so stupid when we have achieved so much? The answer: because we’ve stumbled across ways to structure our practices that have the effect of correcting for our myriad biases. If you think about it, the fact that we require the mangled social prosthetics of science to merely sometimes get things right is not at all flattering. Otherwise, outwitting pets and livestock simply makes you smarter than pets and livestock.

4) Scientism, and/or positivism. Trust me, few people want to see science knocked off the cognitive throne more than me. If you think scientific cognition is easy to bracket or dismiss, then show me how you have managed to find your way past your own set of cognitive disabilities–otherwise, I’m going to assume that, all thing being equal, you’re simply one more fool who thinks he’s won the Magical Belief Lottery–no different than me. As soon as you decide to stop listening to the guys in the white coats, the problem becomes one of distinguishing your brand of theory from the likes of new age inspirational theorists. At least they seem to make people happy.

The new one, the one that Mina references aside from (1) in her comment (so inspiring this post), I think can be summed up as 5) Anybody can criticize.

I actually think I’ve been pretty clear about my constructive inclinations–maybe not, but either way, I’m pretty sure this will be a recurring criticism simply because it isn’t realistic to assume that those coming to the blog for the first time will read much more than the About and the most current post.

What do I think we should do? Tear down our culture of self-congratulation, for one. Because of my profession and institutional affiliations I am primarily focussed on the literary and academic building blocks of that culture–the one’s most apt to proclaim their ‘criticality.’ And what should we replace this culture with? One less mythical, less manipulative, and a whole lot more dubious. How should we go about building this new culture? Convincing critically and creatively minded individuals to plug into popular culture, to reach out to dissenting audiences, for one.

For another, to begin rebuilding our educational institutions. In learning how stupid humans are, we have simultaneously learned that our educational institutions were developed to solve a problem that no one really understood–and as a result, got things wrong, horribly so, as in the case of the ‘college essay.’ How drastic this revision needs to be, I have no idea. The best we could do, it seems to me, is to start experimenting. In the meantime, we need to at least impart what we do know about our stupidity to our kids: particularly the ways they are continually primed and manipulated by the media, and the ways they will continually game local ambiguities to prosecute their global self-interests, cognitive or otherwise, all the while feeling they have been ‘fair and balanced.’ As well as the way all these things lead to problems as pedestrian as divorce and drug abuse, and as epic as wars between faiths and nations.

(As a postscript to Leon, I agree that considerations of value are presently unavoidable, but I’m not so optimistic as to think that value will not be either eliminated (explained away) or naturalized (given a functional explanation). Who knows? The sky is literally the limit, things are that crazy when it comes to scientific theories of consciousness. Either way, I’m guessing there will be a post-scientific humanities (I wouldn’t have called it such, otherwise), and I’m not sure where you got the contrary impression. The question, as mentioned above, is one of how drastic the revision will need to be. Given that the ‘manifest image,’ the way experience appears to us, seems to be at such drastic odds with what we are discovering, and given that this manifest image is what grounds the humanities as they stand, my guess is that the rupture will be fairly drastic.)

Doing It with the Lights On

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism I: Nine times out of eight, ‘open-minded’ is shorthand for saying, ‘I’ve already considered and rejected your point-of-view.’

Daily Aphorism II: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, go fuck yourself, you dirty bastard, I’m still voting Republican, because I mean, really, what could be more true than football cliches?

Once again, I would like to thank everyone for their support of this strange (to me) little experiment. It’s good to know I’m not the only three pound brain out there!

I still intend to get around to Franzen and the literature of complacency, but I’ve been busy pulling together the talks I’m scheduled to give at Aarhus University in a few weeks time–in addition to taking my first sustained stabs at The Unholy Consult.

The idea is to be as provocative (‘obnoxious’ would be the better term) as possible with these talks. Given the power of deprivation bias, I’ve decided to frame all the things I critique–Theory, the literary establishment, the humanities–as endangered species, to insinuate that all the accumulated years of toil my audience has invested in mastering this or that discourse is about to be rendered obsolete. There’s nothing quite like the threat of losing something to fire up the old rationalization modules. So the hope is that I can get them asking questions, drag them onto more Socratic ground–a place where I can shrug, smile, and chastise them for their conservatism. Ask them just what it is they’re trying to save (conserve)… when they pride themselves on being critical and radical.

I always do this: spin plans of cognitive triumph, rehearse flattering scenarios. It never works out the way I think it will, so I don’t know why I bother. But I do have a knack for giving academics pause, and this, I’ve come to think, is about as close to cognitive triumph as anyone can get in these circles.

One of the advantages of knowing the ways the brain is prone to game ambiguities for social and psychological advantage is that it allows you to become that much more sophisticated in your rhetorical manipulations. All tricksy, like. The key is to leave people feeling as if they’re somehow ahead of the curve, that they’ve glimpsed something that eludes their peers. This will make them more inclined to show off their shiny new knowledge–and even if they couch their account in can-you-believe-this-bullshit tones, they will find themselves taking it a little more seriously simply for hearing themselves repeat it. I mean, if they are talking about it, then it has to be significant somehow…

I hope this sounds as crass and as disingenuous to you as it does to me. One of the arguments I make for the ‘New Theory’ is that it has leave the myth of the ‘rational exchange’ behind (think of all the professors out there pretending to be wholly invested in their subject matter, when at some level they know they’re primarily producing discourse for institutional and interpersonal reasons), and to always be cognizant of its own ugliness.

That it cannot but play games… especially when it comes to the worldborn!

Rest assured I’ll be giving you all an account of how things go–one that is as honest as I can manage. Dollars to doughnuts I come away feeling that I had made a difference–no matter what the fact of the matter is!