Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: February, 2011

Conviction Convicts

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Nothing is more dubious than certainty.

I find myself wondering about the people who read through Theo’s blog entries, nodding their head and thinking, “Yes–Yes!

What, if anything distinguishes us from these guys? Are we every bit as chauvinistic as they are, only in different ways? For a long time now, this has been my impression of many you find in the humanities: self-serving dogmatism concealed behind a facade of pseudo-critical homilies. Only sophisticated where Theo is crude, adroit where Theo is clumsy.

In teaching practical reasoning I’ve always been troubled by two specific fallacies: the arguments ad hominem and ad populum. If it is the case that we cannot help but unconsciously game ambiguities to secure status and prestige (which is to say, confabulate rationalizations), and if it’s also the case that the our cognitive incapacity and the complexity of the world are such that anything may be rationalized, then the who of the argument becomes all-important, doesn’t it?

Doesn’t the question of reliability or accuracy or veracity turn more on the issue of who is arguing, more than the arguments themselves? A troubling question for the humanities in general, I think. A troubling question for philosophy most of all.

Aren’t we talking about people with the right psychologies?

Aren’t we talking about us?

Pretty hard to outrun chauvinism, isn’t it? (This is the most insidious thing about ‘seeing through’ the incapacities of others. You always end up using your insights in the same self-aggrandizing ways.)

But after this debate I can’t help but ask the question of cognitive types. Are some people ‘just born’ with overdeveloped ‘rationalization modules?’ I don’t know about you, but it seems to possess anecdotal truth to me. Everyone knows some irritating, perpetually self-satisfied ‘know-it-all.’ People who have some way of spinning every self-serving intuition their brains offer up into universal truth: ‘good for them’ automatically becomes the ‘sad fact of the matter’ for everyone else. Pursuing self-interest becomes serving the public good.

A handy social adaptation, if you think about it.

To some extent I actually think I belong to this cognitive tribe! I’m certainly an insufferable know-it-all. I find myself reflexively theorizing everything all the time, too often through the same self-congratulatory lense. My only saving grace (and this is my rationalization module speaking) is perhaps an overdeveloped self-monitoring system, one that perpetually seems to be catching hypocritical inconsistencies–well, some of them at least. For some reason, I’m continually asking myself questions, and most importantly, I think, laughing at myself. Or cringing.

Which brings me back to the debate. I don’t know about you, but there really seemed to be a dearth of humour on the other side, mocking or otherwise. One of the most striking things about Theo’s responses, I thought, was how earnest and serious they were. I had to convince myself that he really believed he was as intelligent as he claimed–that he took himself as seriously as he seemed to. These guys not only believe in the possibility of univocal interpretation, they think they have hit the cognitve jackpot. The Magical Belief Lottery in overdrive.

But how? Millions of interpretations swarming out there, and they think they have just happened upon the one, that even though everyone thinks they are the cognitive exception, these guys are convinced they are for real (and likely look at tail-chasing reflections like these as symptomatic of spiritual decadence, as opposed to confused honesty). It still makes me dizzy, the human ability to commit–unto death and murder in some cases–to claims willy nilly, so long as they are bracing or flattering in some way.

The feeling of certainty is just beginning to be researched, but I see no reason not to assume the findings will be any less unkind to human vanity as, say, the research into our feeling of willing. Robert Burton, for one, argues that certainty is something that involuntarily accompanies cognition, rather than being the engine of it. That it is, in effect, deceptive through and through.

And yet there’s no escaping the experiential sense that certainty is the fuel that comprehension burns. We always begin with the feeling, then the reasons fall into obedient line afterwards.

So, let’s just say that personality is the sum of a number of neural modules exercising varying degrees of influence over the whole, that there is a rationalization module, a certainty module, a cognitive self-censoring module, and so on, each drawing differing amounts of wattage, depending on a soup of genetic and environmental factors.

So imagine that every population of humans possesses a certain number of individuals with powerful rationalization modules, powerful certainty modules, and vestigial cognitive self-censoring modules. These are the people who get dew-eyed when the minister says ‘turn the other cheek’ and then advocate invading the homes/nations of complete strangers for their own good within the space to two heartbeats. Who want to force the State out of the public market, but invite it into our bedrooms and wombs.

This is simply the hand they were dealt. They might be incredibly intelligent otherwise, but they literally have no choice but to buy their own bullshit, to keep piling their chauvinistic rationalizations to the sky, utterly insensible to the inconsistencies. They barge through debates leaving everyone save those who share their peculiar brew of assumptions alienated and mystified, and never pause to consider the out and out preposterous presumption that underwrites so many of their claims: that the world, everywhere and every turn, is utterly captured by their flattering interpretations. That reality not only loves them, but has raised them above others.

These people, it seems to me, have to be engaged, have to be challenged, if only so that the masses don’t succumb to their own weaknesses for self-serving chauvinism. These people are appealing simply because they are so adept at generating ‘reasons’ for self-serving intuitions that we all share. That we and our ways are special, exempt, and that Others are a threat to us. That our high-school is, like, really the greatest high-school on the planet. Confirmation bias, my-side bias, the list goes on. And given that humans have evolved to be easily and almost irrevocably programmed, it seems to me that the most important place to wage this battle is in classroom. To begin teaching doubt as the highest virtue, as opposed to the madness of belief.

The prevailing madness.

Funny, huh? It’s the lapse in belief that these guys typically see as symptomatic of modern societal decline. But really what they’re talking about is a lapse in agreement. Belief is as pervasive as ever, but as a principle rather than any specific consensual canon. It stands to reason that the lack of ‘moral and cognitive solidarity’ would make us uncomfortable, considering the kinds of scarcity and competition faced by our ancestors. (This is probably what brought tears to my eyes watching Tahrir Square in recent weeks: not so much the cause as the unity.)

We wouldn’t be so keen on policing the thoughts of others otherwise.

Like I’m doing right now.

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Thus Spake Bake

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The only certain thing about intelligence is that you have less of it than you think, and more of it than I credit you for.

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm…

The thing to remember about conceptual food fights like this is the way we congenitally mistake agreement for intelligence. They really are interesting case studies in just how bad humans are when it comes to theoretical debates. I mean, think about it, when was the last time you remember someone online saying, “Egad, I was entirely mistaken!”

We cannot help but game ambiguities to confirm our initial conclusions. When this becomes too difficult, we actually edit our memories and claim that we were really arguing something different. If you don’t believe me, check out the research yourself. I’ve caught myself doing this so very many times. I can only hope this isn’t what I’m doing here.

One of the ways to avoid doing this to cleave to the ‘principle of charity,’ to always take what seems to you to be the strongest interpretation of an opponent’s case before launching your critique. When Theo concluded with, “I am observing – not complaining – that modern fantasy is a literary failure and that the literary decline of the genre over the last fifty years is one of the many symptoms of a greater societal decline,” I read this as a kind of smokescreen meant to hide his retreating moral destroyers. After all, how can someone spend the bulk of an article talking morality, then say, ‘Yeah, but I’m really talking about aesthetics’?

My mistake. I’m not going to bother to rebut his rebuttal on a point by point basis, simply because of the tendency of everything to degenerate into an online cloud of he-said-she-said skirmishes, where no one can really remember who-said-what-when-or-whatever. (But… I… Can’t… Resist… Does he really think the greater number of inspirational books sold has any bearing whatsoever on the consensus among fantasy readers? I don’t get it). I will say, though, that my admissions of incomprehension were motivated by the fact that what I thought he was saying was just so damn, well, misinformed and confused.

My mistake.

Why did I think his aesthetic argument was too bad to be true?

My first reason was theoretical: when it comes to the Metaphysical Truth of Literature no one has a bloody clue. I’m guessing Theo thinks he knows, but I’m sure he would understand my skepticism. This is why I opt for a deflationary approach: what distinguishes literature from fiction more generally is simply what it does. Dune remains the greatest literary experience in my life. What’s literature? Any reading that leaves you changed in some way, as opposed to merely confirmed or satiated. Sounds like a good rule of thumb to me.

Now given our hardwired tendencies to universalize our values, and given the way language reifies experiences, we all talk about books as if they were semantic objects that 1) exist independently of our readings of them, and 2) possess essential value (which happily tends to correspond with our own idiosyncratic evaluations). This is why the vast majority of reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere always blame the book, and not themselves or their reading.

I think we can safely say that Theo is a ‘blame the book’ kind of guy. If so, then he needs only to conjure the knockdown argument that thousands of years of aesthetic argumentation hasn’t been able to provide… In the meantime, I’ll stick to my quick and dirty heuristic.

My second reason had to do with simple consistency. I just couldn’t find a way to ascribe a logically coherent position to Theo interpreting his argument through a literary lens. Despite his insistence that this is what he’s really complaining… er, observing about, he really doesn’t say much about how these modern works aesthetically fail, aside from several invocations of verisimilitude as a kind of literary rule.

But if verisimilitude is a literary criterion then Tolkien fails miserably on any number of accounts, which is indeed what many among the literati seem to think. Moral confusion is a fact of the human condition, so shouldn’t the more ‘faithful’ representations of moral confusion you find in modern fantasy count as a kind of literary triumph?

The same can be said for psychological realism, which for many literary readers and writers counts as a central criterion of the ‘literary.’ Human motives tend to be chaotic and troubling, so much so we like to edit out (and often unconsciously do) all the sordid things that ‘soil’ our character, like obsessive masturbation or gay encounters in toilet stalls. Tolkien fails on this account as well. His characters are as ‘flat’ as can be. They may be true of the way we want our ancient heros to be, fearless and sanitary, but they are anything but realistic depictions of actual ancient heroism, which was as muddied with terror and indecision as heroism today.

If verisimilitude is Theo’s golden criterion, then he seems to be using it awfully selectively. (He never does respond to my ‘moral realism’ point does he?)

But then, this is the point, isn’t it? Throwing ad hoc rationalizations at what is an otherwise inchoate sense of dissatisfaction. Arguing morality, then shifting the goal posts to aesthetics. Cooking up reasons to feed that oh-so hungry need to be right.

Just like everyone else–which is why these online debates become so intractable so quickly.

And convinced, just like everyone else, that “I am about as genuinely disinterested as it is possible to be and still be cognizant of the matter.”

Just observing the facts are you? Hmmmmmmmmmm. Funny how everyone not only agrees with themselves all the time, they’re always convinced that they are the fair one, the moral one, the intelligent one. I mean, how could it be that everyone thinks that?

When everyone is a walking plumb line, the only people who don’t seem crooked are those who remind them of themselves.

Me? I’m invested, as much as can be. And biased, the way every human walking is biased. I have my guesses, my cartoon conceptualizations, my bets. I’m trying to see my way past my bent yardstick, to see what arguments you have to offer, but Theo!

You do realize that Nietzsche is making fun of your mindset in those quotes, don’t you? Mocking. Deconstructing.

And yes, creating.

Of Blood and Titties

by rsbakker

 Aphorism of the Day: The only thing certain about morality is that you have more of it.

I’m just going to jump right into Theo’s response to my last posting…

On the second point concerning 2) Moral certainty versus relativistic confusion, I very much disagree that there is any straw man, let alone a Great Straw Man involved. Bakker writes: “The idea seems to be that ‘moral relativism’ has some kind of ‘moral dampening effect,’ which in turn forces the author to reach deeper to achieve moral effects. I’m not so sure this makes much sense.” But I don’t see how the dampening effect can be reasonably doubted. Let me put it in visual terms. If I am painting with primary colors, it is not difficult to achieve the effects of “red” and “blue”. I simply use red and blue paint. If, however, I have nothing but grey paint, it takes a tremendous amount of skill to achieve any distinction between a red effect and a blue effect. So most painters, not being sufficiently skilled, will be forced to utilize other means of getting the effect across to the viewer by appealing to the viewer’s strongest preconceptions about color, preconceptions which are entirely external to the work. (This is what I meant when I referred to an “artificial facsimile of a moral sensibility” which is located within the work itself.) A “red” stop sign or a “blue” police uniform can serve as artificial substitutes for color that isn’t actually there. While one might quite reasonably argue that it is “simplistic” to use traditional and commonly understood colors in order to achieve a certain color effect, I don’t see how one can rationally argue that not using color, or worse, using yellow for red and brown for blue, is a more effective or powerful means of communicating color. What might work out extraordinarily well in the sophisticated hands of a master painter is very likely to turn out as a gaudy and nonsensical disaster in less accomplished hands. And these sorts of morally incoherent disasters are precisely what I perceive in much modern fantasy today. To extend the analogy a bit further, the problem with the end result isn’t that the painting doesn’t have the exact amount of blue that I, (or anyone else), might believe it should have, the problem is that it is an ugly mess that lacks versimilitude and is incapable of stirring any feeling in the viewer but contempt and disgust.

This analogy mystifies me. I truly don’t have a blasted clue what he’s talking about.

The most I can do by way of response is offer an analogy of my own. One of the weird things about teaching nowadays is the way students no longer fit into Perry’s famed stages of ‘undergraduate development’: rather than arriving at university as naive moral realists with a dualistic, defer-to-authority attitude, they tend to be naive relativists. The bulk of them, I have found anyway, will say right or wrong depends on your cultural frame-of-reference, or something similar. To which I’ll reply, “So female circumcision is quite proper so long as it is practiced in Sudan.”

You can almost hear a “poof,” their naive relativism evaporates so fast. The point is this: our moral intuitions often don’t care about our ideas all that much. Humans, as social animals, are other-evaluating machines, and as such, there are very few consistent relativists out there (as I’m sure Grin and Theo would agree (thus the Nazi references)). Relativists are perfectly happy to live and let live as far as lifestyle choices go, but when it comes to acts of obvious harm, they are as censorious and as judgmental as a televangelist at a gay rights parade.

I guess I can see how people like Grin and Theo, who seem to think that ancient tribal prohibitions formulated in an age of endemic violence and prolonged scarcity are every bit as applicable to these wildly prosperous and technologically mediated times, would come to think of naive relativism as ‘dampening morality’: given their rigid and anachronistic yardsticks, the ‘worldly’ must seem ‘less moral’ in any number of respects.

But the empirical fact is that to be human is to be moral. And, as researchers are discovering, to be human is to generally think you’re more moral than others. ‘Me good, you bad,’ is expressed through many of the different biases we suffer. Some of the most pious, insufferably judgmental people I know are self-proclaimed relativists. They certainly seem immune to the ‘moral dampening field’ their ideology is supposedly generating.

Because there’s so damned many of us, our hardwired sense of moral superiority generates quite the chaotic soup of claims and indignations. So the ‘ugly mess’ he refers to at the end of his analogy, far from lacking verisimilitude, is quite an apt description for our all too human moral state of affairs. The ‘contempt and disgust’ he describes is likely just a product of his sense of moral superiority. His attribution of these emotions to some ‘generic viewer’ is likely an example of something called the Consensus Fallacy, our tendency to assume our judgments are more universally shared than they in fact are.

Although he characterized it correctly, I don’t think Bakker quite understood the third point, 3) Organic consistency versus moral anachronism, in its entirety. I applaud his refusal to bow to the temporal moral anachronisms that litter modern fantasy like a virulent STD, and will happily assure him that I have never presumed “individuals in ancient contexts were not morally conflicted”. The simple fact that has apparently been missed here is that in order to be “morally conflicted”, there must be at least two moral poles between which that conflict can take place. It doesn’t matter what the moralities are, as one can create a credible moral conflict regardless of whether one believes that stoning homosexuals is a moral imperative or a totally immoral act. The point is that there must be a defined pole and an anti-pole or else there is no moral conflict; define those poles how you like, albeit with due respect for historical definitions if you have decided to make use of a recognizable historical setting. As for the connection between moral anachronisms in fiction and certain sensibilities, I would think it is rather obvious that it is almost always those writers who reject traditional moral standards – or alternatively, the very concept of universally applicable moral standards – who are so uncomfortable with them that they insist on introducing the moral equivalent of laser-sighted handguns into an era of swords and spears. This is just bad judgment leading to bad writing.

Another argument I’m not sure I understand. I’m inclined to agree that moral conflict requires “at least two poles,” but Theo continues as if he had said something quite different: that moral conflict requires “two immutable poles and two immutable poles only…” Something which is just not the case, as, once again, the real world demonstrates in vivid, heartbreaking detail. We live, and have always lived, in a world filled with moral conflict that turns on multiple, transient poles. Saddam is our trusted ally. Saddam is an evil-doer. The list goes on and on and on.

Finally, I have no choice but to conclude that Bakker has missed the primary thrust of my argument when he writes: “As I hope should be clear by this point, Theo’s four recapitulations of Grin’s points are really different spins of the same complaint: modern fantasy is a moral failure.”
But this is not what I am saying at all. I am observing – not complaining – that modern fantasy is a literary failure and that the literary decline of the genre over the last fifty years is one of the many symptoms of a greater societal decline. That this literary and societal decline has a moral component is readily apparent, but is beyond the scope of my argument, nor does that argument rely upon subscription to “a certain family of wish-fulfilment moralities”. In other words, there is no circle, which is why the potential difficulty of squaring it is irrelevant. I have no desire to tell anyone what they should or should not write, anymore than I wish to tell them what they should or should not eat. Write what thou wilt is the whole of the literary law. But if you happen to be wondering why so many people think your breath stinks, I’m certainly not going to hesitate to explain that you may want to reconsider your eating habits.

‘Things have gone from better to worse.’ If this isn’t a value-judgment then I don’t know what a value-judgment is.

‘I’m not telling people what to write, only that their writing is contributing to the world’s destruction.’ Yeesh.

Seems to me that Theo has a genuine talent for squaring circles, which is what we all do when we find ourselves pinched by our moral intuitions. By shifting the ground of the debate to morality, I think I forced Theo into an uncomfortable position. The notion of art unconstrained by moral or religious prejudice is a venerable imperative that we have inherited from the Enlightenment. By emphasizing the way moral concerns marble his arguments against modern fantasy, I basically pressed his nose against this imperative. Thus the doubletalk of making sweeping value-judgments under the guise of disinterested observation.

Smells like moral cowardice to me. If you really believe it, then just say it: “Joe, you are leading innocent souls to potential damnation,” or whatever it is you say by way of self-confirming commiseration to your in-group peers.

Christ, I spend half my time telling the literati to write genre largely because I think genre reaches people who have been duped by their cognitive shortcomings into thinking they know, in succumbing to a sense of moral certainty that is deceptive (as a matter of empirical fact), as well as an engine of untold social conflict and sorrow, and something we can scarce afford in the technological madness to come. “Write what thou whilst” as far as I’m concerned, is code for “Write for yourself,” which is code for “Write for those like yourself,” which is code for, “Apologize for the in-group status quo.”

Then call yourself ‘critical’ because the people who never read you would be challenged by your presumptions if they did.

There’s nothing wrong with arguing the moral effects of cultural artifacts. Thanks to our hardwired moral conceits, everyone likes to think they are part of the solution rather than the problem. So if you can make a convincing case that modern fantasy is harming society as opposed to simply evolving in directions you don’t like, then, no matter what the writer’s ideological persuasion, you can call them out on their own assumptions, their own yardsticks.

Of course, they will never believe you. But if your position is compelling enough to extort some kind of sustained consideration, then the trajectory of everything they write afterward will have shifted for passing through your semantic field. Maybe they’ll think twice about those blood-drenched titties.

I just don’t see anything remotely convincing about either Grin’s or Theo’s case. Quite the contrary, my guess is that many modern fantasists would look at their arguments as proof that they’re doing something right. That their fantasy has triumphed in some way.

More blood. More titties.

 

The Rise and Triumph of Modern Fantasy

by rsbakker

Before I dig into the meat of the dispute I want to highlight what–for me, anyway–is the most extraordinary upshot of this entire affair: the way it seems to belong to heroic fantasy and heroic fantasy alone. The issues that are being argued here and in small pockets across the web are not only key to what could be the most troubling and profound aspects of modernity, they are almost entirely specific to a fictional subgenre that is firmly rooted at the very bottom of the cultural authority gradient. Here we see a symbolic analogue to why archaeologists cry out for joy when they uncover ancient midden heaps.

More often than not, the truth, whatever it is, likes to hide in the trashcan. So let me suggest, from the outset, that even though we may belong to the low paraliterati, we are actually engaging in an incredibly complex and timely debate, one which represents genuinely conflicting social interests, while the literati are simply disputing angels and pins amongst themselves.

Only in fantasy, folks. Which is why I have been self-consciously exploring these self-same issues throughout The Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor. These are literally the problems that I used to structure the metaphysics of the World and the Outside. I can’t help but feel a little bit of that delicious I-told-you-so tingle…

The latest salvo in the dour side of the debate is “The Decline and Fall of the Fantasy Novel,” which appeared on Black Gate just this past Sunday. In this essay, Theo breaks Grin’s lament down into four categories, so rescuing the argument from all the hyperbole and self-congratulatory in-group asides that so marred the original.

By way of caveats, I think its important to remember a few things, some obvious, others not so obvious. The first is that Frodo and Conan are not dead, though Tolkien and Howard are. It’s not as though there isn’t any earnest fantasy out there, it’s that there’s so very little new earnest fantasy out there. The second is that the ‘work’ is itself a fiction: stacks of ink and paper are just that, stacks of ink and paper, absent this or that particular human brain. So what we are talking about are readings and generalizations drawn from readings, not semantic objects hanging in some supernatural symbolic phase space. As far as I know, no evangelical Christian would want to argue that the Holy Ghost secures the Truth of their interpretations of The Lord of the Rings. Only the Holy Bible (where apparently, the Holy Ghost is of at least as many minds as there are denominations).

So then, Theo’s four categories:

1) Heroic inspiration versus anti-heroic discouragement

Theo’s suggestion seems to be that ‘heroic redemption’ is–or at least should be–a cornerstone of the genre. What he really means, it seems to me, is moral redemption, and a very specific one at that: the heroic overcoming of external threats. Why this should be the cornerstone of the genre, or anything beyond a statement of personal taste, is quite beyond me. Think of Achilles and his paralyzing melancholy, or Odysseus and his manipulative craft. Even the ancients had a taste for things more complicated.

2) Moral certainty versus relativistic confusion

As Theo writes:

“there is no such thing as “good” or “evil” per se in most modern fantasy. All is more or less relative, which is why modern writers are so often forced to manipulate the reader’s emotional responses with “shocking” scenes of dead children and raped women in order to provide an artificial facsimile of a moral sensibility.”

Theo poses this as a descriptive point, even though rhetoric like ‘artificial facsimile of a moral sensibility’ shouts otherwise. The idea seems to be that ‘moral relativism’ has some kind of ‘moral dampening effect,’ which in turn forces the author to reach deeper to achieve moral effects. I’m not so sure this makes much sense.

Consider what happens when we change the beginning of the above quote to “there is no such thing as obvious good and obvious evil per se in most modern fantasy. All is more or less confused, which is why modern writers are so often forced…”

Now this makes more sense: when everything is confused, then you have to reach for those deep intuitions to conjure a sense of moral clarity. This is what I do in my own works, quite self-consciously, but certainly not to provide ‘artificial fascimile’ of moral intuitions. I’m not even sure what an ‘artificial intuition’ would look like!

But this simply underscores the Great Straw Man that underwrites the censure that permeates both Grin’s and Theo’s pieces: the imputation of a metaphysical position, namely ‘moral relativism,’ to their apparent aesthetic antagonists. Like Grin (and maybe Theo) I see relativism as a nihilistic dodge, I’m just not as inclined to think my moral intuitions are the intuitions as they seem to be. In my works, what they would likely call ‘relativism’ is nothing of the sort. It’s actually moral realism that we’re talking about. Moral ambiguity and confusion are simply a fact of the human condition, one which in no way speaks to the metaphysical truth of morality. In The Second Apocalypse, the big question is simply one of what people make of this situation. Some instrumentalize it. Some flounder. Some perpetually struggle. And some–like Grin and Theo, apparently–think they have seen through the confusion. Just like the real world.

Just as genre fiction tends to offer wish-fulfilment heroes, much of it offers wish-fulfilment moral certainty as well. What distinguishes heroic fantasy is the wholesale way this morality informs the metaphysics of the secondary worlds created. This, I think, is really what these guys are complaining about: that there is a special generic relationship between heroic fantasy and moral certainty.

I agree. I just don’t see why this relationship has to be a simple one.

3) Organic consistency versus moral anachronism

Okay. This part I understand:

“When both morality and religion have been methodically excised from the beliefs of the characters and as well as from the environment in which they are found, especially in a quasi-medieval setting, the overall effect is bound to ring as false to the intelligent reader as providing the conventional low fantasy protagonist with a ray gun and a battery powered gene-splicing device would be.”

I have always found secular sensibilities in premodern contexts to be anachronistic and off-putting, all the moreso when they reek of ‘political correctness.’ This is the insertion of a certain modern moral certainty (more wish-fulfilment) into premodern story contexts. The bulk of the controversy my books have caused, I think, has to do with my refusal to pander to the readers’ modern moral sensibilities, particularly with regards to gender.

What I don’t understand in Theo’s recap is the apparent presumption that individuals in ancient contexts were not morally conflicted: of course they were, insofar as the complexity of our moral environment always outruns the simplicity of our moral precepts and intuitions as a fact of the human condition. You don’t need to study ancient Greek drama to appreciate this: humans always have been pinched by moral dilemmas. It’s one of the reasons why we have the history of violence that we do. Why would doubt be so vilified and certainty so prized, if the ancients didn’t find themselves trapped in ancient versions of the moral quandaries that continually plague our souls, collectively and otherwise?

Once again, he seems to be conflating moral realism with metaphysical relativism, which he then assigns to a certain political sensibility. I just don’t see what warrants any of these moves.

4) Moral cowardice

I found this the muddiest of Theo’s recapitulations, so I’m not entirely confident of my interpretation. The idea seems to be that for all the ‘shades of moral grey,’ a kind of obvious moral cowardice motivates the representations of moral conflict in recent fantasy. As he writes, “Their work isn’t the least bit daring or dangerous, it is entirely predictable as they only attack the targets of the past now deemed safe by modern sensibilities.” In other words, they only go through the motions of challenging the reader.

Since Theo is advocating the apologetic, reaffirming form of the genre, his charge has to be one of hypocrisy (your defections from the code achieve none of the things you claim they achieve) because ‘challenging’ is not an artistic value for him, at least as far as fantasy is concerned. Since I always thought Joe Abercrombie was blessedly free of my pretentious ambitions, I never thought he was ‘trying to rewrite the genre’ or anything like that. Either way, Theo seems to be almost entirely blind to the irony of what he’s saying, since he himself was obviously ‘challenged’ or ‘provoked’ enough to write an entire essay in an attempt to make his unflattering evaluations stick. I think writers like Joe, Steve, and George are actually tweaking millions of readers.

I also think that this is precisely what Grin and Theo don’t like, given that they have supposedly isolated a ‘liberal bias’ in these three writers. Especially with Grin, the problem is that these guys are challenging the reader in the wrong way.

As for me, well…

I hesitate because I always hesitate when I think I find catastrophically horrible arguments. I gotta be missing something…

Diagnosis

As I hope should be clear by this point, Theo’s four recapitulations of Grin’s points are really different spins of the same complaint: modern fantasy is a moral failure. To me, these essays reek of rationalization, the attempt to dress up a certain yen for certain narrative problems resolved in certain narrative ways in certain narrative circumstances in ‘reasons.’ The resulting arguments are well nigh incoherent.

The charge of ‘moral anachronism’ is the only one that seems to have bite: insofar as historical consistency is accepted as a common standard, inserting politically correct intuitions into ancient contexts is a ‘spell breaker.’ It is for me, but I’m not sure it is for many other readers. Does that make me a better reader? I’m not so sure.

Otherwise the strategy consists of equivocating moral realism (the fact that moral confusion and conundrums are part of the human condition) with moral relativism, which is then conflated with modern liberalism. This way, any moral uncertainty in heroic fantasy becomes a kind of anachronistic betrayal, as well as an insidious attempt to politically indoctrinate. Mammon is everywhere.

But as we have seen moral realism is no way historically inconsistent. The moral confusion they take exception to is as true of our ancestors as it is for us. It certainly characterized the foment of the time period I use to model my world. The primary difference is that we no longer possess the institutions and ignorance required to enforce an official moral consensus. With the dawn of science and capitalism, the State had no choice but to get out of the moral solidarity business. As Iran’s theo-political class is discovering, the repression required to enforce moral uniformity tends to undermine legitimacy, which is a necessary condition of long-term social stability and prosperity.

Theo and Grin are arguing that a certain family of wish-fulfilment moralities is the only one appropriate to fantasy as it should be. It’s a kind of critique that I have more than a little passing familiarity with, since it shares the same form as many of the arguments used by those who accuse me or my works of misogyny. The insurmountable problem for them is that they use realism, ‘fidelity to the times,’ as their critical yardstick.

In other words, they argue for a certain fantastic fantasy morality by claiming that the kinds of moralities you find in much modern fantasy are not ‘realistic.’ Not an easy circle to square.

A Letter to the Powerless and the Mystified

by rsbakker

 

Just a note to any Americans visiting the site. For some reason the Republicans have forgotten that Firing Line was one of the socio-cultural catalysts that led to their resurgence in the Eighties. Remember to call your congressmen, and tell them that PBS and NPR is worth more than TWO F-22 Raptors.

You want to know why you have debt crisis? Look at your military spending (decades after the ‘Soviet threat’). Download Why We Fight… If every airforce in the world banded together, you guys would still whup their ass. So what are you preparing for? An alien invasion?

Otherwise, when debating with your buddies, just ask them questions: Why has the middle-class stagnated since Reagan was swept into office (and don’t let the ‘household income’ trick fool you (I’ve actually come across right wing arguments for reinstituting child labour!)), even as the economy as a whole more than doubled in size? Where has all that wealth gone? Why are Western Europeans born in poverty almost twice as likely to realize the ‘American Dream’ than Americans? Why didn’t the Bush era tax cuts generate the magical revenue needed to balance the budget? If ‘aristocracy’ refers to the inheritance of power, and money is power, doesn’t the repeal of inheritance taxes mean that power in America is becoming a matter of inheritance? For that matter, why is social mobility evaporating in the country that claims it as its birthright?

Why are the people who have nothing save their labour, being asked to shoulder the budget balancing burden?

Could it because the people who own all the bullhorns have confused their self-interests with the Universal Good? But humans don’t do that… do they?

Creeping normalcy is your enemy. It all comes down to bargaining power in markets. The less bargaining power you possess, the worse the deal is for you, the better it is for those with bargaining power. Whenever somebody says, “You’re lucky to have a job,” what they are literally saying is “You’re economically powerless – be thankful!”

Whenever somebody says, “Why should the taxpayers fund elections?” what they are literally saying is, “Make government more transparent to market bargaining power!”

Government is ugly, sure, but it’s the only institution that can force those with all the bargaining power to yield to the interests of those without. Most all arguments for ‘shrinking government,’ are arguments for giving more power to the powerful. If you need to compromise overall ‘market efficiency’ to prosecute your interests, then so be it – within limits of course.

Here’s a possible scenario: Since inequities in markets tend to generate greater inequities (as the power bargainers, confusing their conceits for truth, leverage their power into more and more power), the American middle-class will progressively command less and less economic power, and the amorphous sense of communal discontent will slowly simmer and simmer until it reaches a boil. The power bargainers will marshal their resources (the labour of the powerless) in various attempts to redirect this discontent away from themselves and toward internal (ie, the ‘Government’) or external (ie, ‘radical Islam’) threats, which is to say, in ways that happily, coincidentally, maximize their bargaining power.

This, I think, has been the status quo. The million dollar sociological question, for me, is one of how long it can be sustained. Is there enough in the way of bread and circuses to keep siphoning the bulk of economic growth to the powerful in perpetuity?

I don’t think so. The concentration of power typically seems to lead to abuses. Markets require a plurality of competitors to function efficiently. The problem is that competition is expensive, which means that the powerful face an inexorable statistical tendency to collude, to minimize competition(and so render their power independent of the vagaries of consumption), and thus to short circuit the markets that were the original basis of their power. Market economies, in other words, are all threatened by the tendency to congeal into multiple industry-specific centrally-planned subeconomies. Ordinarily this would lead to gross inefficiencies and to crisis, and to some kind of mobilization of the powerless to fascistic or revolutionary ends.

But information technology could very well be a game changer.

What do you guys think?

In the meantime, UNIONIZE – especially if you’re in the service industry. You can’t offshore many services. This is the only way I can see to return economic bargaining power to the masses, and so right the listing economic ship. Unions may be ugly as all hell close up, but the further you step back, the better looking they become.

What other options are there?

Grin Juice Concentrate

by rsbakker

Definition of the Day – Bureaucracy: a complex organization of humans (often attributed to governments, but actually perfected by corporations) meant to maximize innocence and to minimize accountability in order to better generate irrational outcomes. 

So I had an interesting morning in the coffee shop: one beginning with absolute declarations of what God demands of women, and ending with a joke about geriatric cunnilingus.

Things were just swimming with The Unholy Consult when I happened to overhear this guy a couple of tables over telling another guy how ‘the prophet’ had told ‘man’ about the indecency of women appearing in public. The private sphere, he insisted, is every bit as glorious and rewarding as the public, but the obscenity of modern society was such that women were ‘confused,’ to the point where they could no longer cherish what was their exalted role.

Now, I admit I was offended – morally offended. I had just read the story about how Lara Logan, the CBS’s chief correspondent in Egypt, had been raped and brutalized by a gang of men in Tahir Square while thousands of others were celebrating  Mubarak’s fall from power. The sordid contradiction of this still makes my head spin: the way human triumph and squalor so effortlessly flow through the same ancient sewer system.

I felt the need to show this guy he was an idiot.

But I’ve grown suspicious of this feeling over the years. I could tell by the sheer intensity of his declarations that he was an Idealogue in the Old Testament sense. And I could feel a matching intensity swelling in my breast. Piety – oh, my.

Then he turns to me and says, “You’re that famous author, aren’t you?”

And I reply, “Well, I wouldn’t say ‘famous.’ Notorious in some small circles maybe.”

“Notorious? Why is that?”

“Well, because I write about how stupid human beings are…” I explained what I thought our three biggest cognitive shortcomings were: the way we’re hardwired to think we’re more right than others, to unconsciously manufacture evidence of our more-rightness, and to be downright allergic to doubt and uncertainty.

“Hardwired? I find it interesting you would use a transitive verb. So tell me, who did the hardwiring?’

“Who? Why does there have to be a who?”

And we were off to the races. I didn’t even dent this guy, and trust me, I’ve sent many, many religious idealogues trotting away pale-faced with doubt. I’m the guy who waves the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses in off the street – truly. He was as certain as certain could be.

I said, “These are extraordinary claims you’re making.”

“Extraordinary? Not at all. What do you mean?”

“You’re saying that you’re know what God Almighty wants.”

“I don’t know anything.”

“So you don’t know the proper place of women?”

God knows – not me!”  

Holy Moly. It was like playing three card monte with language: every time I pointed out the red queen, he would hold up a black one and say that God decides what we call red. And so it went, until he told me he found me insulting. I laughed, and said, “Dude, have you ever heard a recording of yourself?”

At which point he decided to play “the bigger man” game: he stood up, and said, “Well then, I apologize,” and held out his hand in friendship… except that it was shaking for rage. Literally.

I took his hand and said, “Hey look. Stick around: I can talk about this stuff all day.” And I seriously could. Out of honest curiosity, sure, but probably out of some instinct to establish ideological dominance more.

No. He had to go. And I believed him. Then he asked me for my name, and you know what? some instinct felt viscerally threatened  by the request. I gave it to him anyway.

Afterwards a couple of female regulars took his place, wily and irreverent souls, and one of them told me a joke that a prison inmate had told her earlier in the week: “What does an 85 year old woman taste like?”

“I don’t know.”

“Depends…”

What a morning. I could spend a lifetime parsing the significances and implications.

The Fourth Tribe (Or, Going for Baroque)

by rsbakker

So I’ve had this tripartite way of dividing fantasy fans for some time now. There’s the largest constituency, the Adventure Junkies, who want their fantasy to be as kinetic as Clive Cussler. Then there’s the two smaller constituencies: the Weird Junkies, who love smoking from the possibility-for-possibility’s sake bong, and there’s the World Junkies, who want something massive and, most importantly, believeable. I’ve always considered myself a member of the latter tribe, though I’ve never had any issue with the former two. These ‘tribes’ are simply a crude heuristic, of course, a way to regiment and discuss what is in fact an amorphous mass of readers. Personally, I like kineticism, and I sincerely enjoy the possibility bong, but for me, it all comes down the World. The Second Apocalypse isn’t shaping up to be a monstrous metaphysical whodunnit for no reason.

So this is the scheme I’ve been using. Then, via Adam’s Wertzone I was led to the conservative Big Hollywood site and a fascinating little article by Leo Grin entitled “The Bankrupt Nihilism of our Fallen Fantasists.” Grin, apparently, has decided to turn his back on contemporary fantasy, which he believes has been thoroughly coopted by ‘liberal decadence.’ His thesis is rather nicely summed up, I think, by the following:

Soiling the building blocks and well-known tropes of our treasured modern myths is no different than other artists taking a crucifix and dipping it in urine, covering it in ants, or smearing it with feces. In the end, it’s just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing. It’s a well-worn road: bored middle-class creatives (almost all of them college-educated liberals) living lives devoid of any greater purpose inevitably reach out for anything deemed sacred by the conservatives populating any artistic field. They co-opt the language, the plots, the characters, the cliches, the marketing, and proceed to deconstruct it all like a mad doctor performing an autopsy. Then, using cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism, they put it back together into a Frankenstein’s monster designed to shock, outrage, offend, and dishearten.

Awesome.

Now Adam in his blog response quite rightly points out that more than a little nihilistic despair colours both Tolkien’s and Howard’s work: Even as a kid, I read them as celebrations of things lost, as longwinded eulogies. Given this, you might say that Grin thinks this is fantasy’s vocation, to endlessly eulogize, and that writing that strays into the baroque or revisionary are not only morally and imaginatively bankrupt, they are symptomatic of some great disease of the soul that is presently claiming the world and humanity.

Sound familiar? It should if you read fantasy. This particular salad of attitudes and concepts – moral certainty writ on a cosmic scale – is precisely what you find in almost all premodern works of fantastic fiction, everything from Upanishads to the Holy Bible. Consider the hyperbole. Consider the way he structures his oppositions in the above quote: on the one side you have the sacred, the treasured and the cruciform, while on the other side you have, well, shit and piss.

Pure purity and abject pollution.

Humans are apparently hardwired for this stuff (Pascal Boyer, for instance, has interesting things to say about the psychology and neuroscience of contamination with reference to religion), which is probably why Grin’s declarations resonate with so many Big Hollywood readers. The important thing to remember, however, is that these are intuitions that we all share, more or less. It’s simply the ‘more’ or ‘less’ that determines where we fall on the cultural-political spectrum.

(Note that I’m only referring to a very specific brand of conservatism here. Given the findings of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, it’s hard not to see cultural conservatism as anything other than our conceits and vanities raised to a political ethos. We good. You bad. We chosen. You left behind. We saved. You damned. Our scripture, 100% divinity guaranteed. Your scripture, devil spawn. We pure. You mongrel. And the list just gets more and more embarrassing.

Fiscal conservatism, on the other hand, is a guess (one that I no longer share after 30 years of the Middle-class’s dwindling economic power) that could very well be right (and likely is, when it comes to specific issues)).

The crazy thing is that Grin actually doesn’t think it’s the vocation of fantasy to eulogize. Why? Because eulogies are for funerals, and the ancient ethoi you find in Tolkien and Howard are most certainly not dead, even though their so-called ‘successors’ are bent on suffocating them with their ‘soil.’

This is why (perhaps) the nihilistic despair that seems to obvious to most readers of Howard and Tolkien misses him entirely. Good is still good, and evil is still evil, no matter what those ‘college educated’ nihilists/relativists say. This is a sentiment that has, I would wager, tipped the balance of more than one election.

Grin seems to be an honest-to-God ‘Flat-Brainer’: someone who literally thinks that his yardstick is not bent, that he has not only won the Magical Belief Lottery, he has obviously done so.

Which is to say that Grin is passing judgment on fantasy from a fantasy world – or worlds, as the case might be. The first is the fantasy world where, despite being one more me-me-me schmuck like everyone else, he is obviously right unlike everyone else. The second is the fantasy world where the entire parade of human conceit, everything from our sense of moral certainty to the spiritual inferiority of the Other, possesses objective weight.

Which is why he uses the language and the attitude that I’m continually try to work into my fantasy world! Why I think the above quote is so awesome.

The ‘nihilism’ that Grin blames on decadent individuals (who also happen to be his political competitors) is as impersonal as can be, the result the forces unleashed by the Enlightenment twins of science and capital. Someone like him is bound to see ‘liberal contamination’ everywhere he turns, simply because, like our less tolerant ancestors, he needs to personify those things he does not like. But you don’t need liberal conspiracies or social dystopia to explain the evolution of contemporary fantasy. The transformation of ‘earnest art’ into forms than are progressively more baroque and revisionary is something you find in pretty much all genres of artistic expression. Familiarity breeds boredom, if not contempt. Humans stranded with old equipment come up with new games to play.

Thus the paradox: People are generally allergic to complexity and uncertainty, and so crave the apparent simplicity and certainty delivered by the Same. But they are also allergic to monotony, and so begin to improvise, to complicate and to surprise. ‘To go for baroque.’ The severity of these allergies depends on the sensibilities of the individual: we react to our reading, then rationalize accordingly, typically using what themes that dominate our thinking otherwise. Grin sees contemporary fantasy as the expression of liberal decadence. I see Grin’s diagnosis as the expression of our all too human cognitive shortcomings.

Me right. He wrong! So very wrong!

(This is where my decadent liberal preoccupation with irony shows its contaminating hand).

What Grin has showed me is that there is fourth tribe of fantasy fans out there: the Nostalgia Junkies. I’ve spilled more than a few gallons of electronic ink over the years suggesting that much of fantasy’s appeal lies in the way provides readers the kinds of worlds that humans are prone to cook up in the absence of science, worlds adapted to our psychology, rather than vice versa. Scriptural worlds. Pondering his essay I couldn’t shake the sense that it was more the tone of Tolkien and Howard that he was missing, not the ideological content (which he seems to so clearly misread). The very tone that I have worked so hard – too hard, according to some critics – to recreate in my own fantasy fiction. Elevated, and serious unto lugubriousness.

The tone of Believers.

Either way, he demonstrates  what makes fantasy not simply exciting, but so damn important as a literary genre: it appeals to a set of psychological tendencies that the human race can no longer afford. The Fourth Tribe (which we all belong to in varying degrees) is the one that not only resists adaptation to changing socio-cultural conditions, it is also the one most prone to condemn that change, to confuse its parochial intuitions for universal truth, and most troubling still, to personify – which is to say, to hold some identifiable group accountable for its all too human confusion and discomfort.

Fantasy, you could even say, could be the most socially relevant literary genre in the 21st century, insofar as it actually reaches the human constituency that will have the most difficulty adapting to the profound transformations to come. The Grin Demographic.

Not only is Grin wrong, he is living proof that I could possibly be right!

At the very least, he certainly has my brain’s rationalization module working in overdrive…

Hope, and Other Maudlin Projections

by rsbakker

Definition of the Day – Hope: Something that happens to facts when the world refuses to agree.

Nothing makes me feel more maudlin than watching the downtrodden overthrow their oppressors. The only movies that jerk my tear chain are ones where those at the bottom rise up and up until they drown those at the top…

Like what happened in Egypt.

I understand this is depressing website–and I’m frankly amazed that so many of you return so regularly. I’m guessing that I’m no where near so dark and gloomy in person as I must come across here. The fact is, I try to be dire and negative in these posts, even though I know this does nothing to sell to my books–probably scares people away, in fact. The world is a trash-can stuffed with redemptive messages; the least I can do, it seems to me, is scribble a couple memos of warning.

Everybody but everybody thinks they’ve seen through the world-views of others (this is a big theme in all my books, but none more so than Light, Time, and Gravity). My first great ‘philosophical moment’ hit me when I was 14 and I stumbled onto determinism all by my lonesome. It was like being pulled under, realizing that all the world was deceived. Then it was Heidegger in my early twenties, the realization that my deterministic picture of the world was the projection of deep, historically and culturally conditioned assumptions. The world was just as deceived–only the disease had changed.

And now its cognitive science.

At each turn I thought my picture of things explained the pictures of others. The only difference now is that I no longer have any faith whatsoever in philosophy. Absent that faith I’m stranded with the findings of psychology and cognitive neuroscience, findings that more and more seem to suggest that we as a species are thoroughly deluded in a terrifying panoply of ways.

What does it mean to live a life of wilful delusion?

This, I think, is one of the great questions of our future.

I write from the very bottom of the cultural authority gradient–I have no illusions about that. This means the gap between my station and my ambition is about as drastic as artistically possible. Small wonder so many insecurities trickle through my thinking. But I continue my slog of slogs…

Why?

Not to be rich–that’s for fucking sure.

Not out of any ‘quality of character’ on my part. There’s no heroism in art, only stubbornness.

Not out of any sense of conviction. Scarcely a day passes where I don’t laugh or cringe at the way my ‘justifications’ perform the same self-aggrandizing function as the ‘rationalizations’ I continually criticize. Odds are, I’m as full of shit as the next guy. Truly.

But I could be right. It really could be the case that literary culture (by stigmatizing hardwired staples of taste like spectacle, melodrama, and convention) polarizes and divides, so robbing (by defining what counts as ‘serious’ counter our innate inclinations) the greater community of critical resources it desperately needs. That it does what pretty much every human institution does: game interpretative ambiguities to better transform its narrow self-interests into a universal humanitarian mission, one that is as flattering as it is false.

That it is a kind of bloated leech, bleeding us for its own good, while pretending to minister to us on our deathbed.

This is my guess. Aside from a genuine iconoclasm, all I have going in my favour is that guesses are all we have when it comes to theorizing things so complicated as culture.

I could be right… So it seems to me that someone has to make this case, even at the ‘risk’ of scorn and penury and obscurity.

If guesses are all we have, this means that some guesses must be worth dying for. When people put their lives (as opposed to their art) on the pass line waiting for the dice to roll… Wow… It makes me weepy and ashamed.

No matter what number comes up, Egypt has made cowards of us all.

I mean, I use italics to press my case!

In the Eye of Armageddon

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The pace of old age is best measured in the capacity to be numb.

I actually think the ‘Singularity’ is a problematic metaphor.

A few years back I gave this paper at Brock University called “Dragons Over Spaceships” (which I would just redact and post here, if it wasn’t buried somewhere in my dead computer) where I used the work of a conceptual historian named Koselleck to explain the relationship between fantasy and science fiction, and the ways in which the former could be considered a more fertile ground for a ‘literature of ideas.’ Koselleck defines Modernity (Neuzeit) as the changing relationship between what he called the ‘space of experience’ and the ‘horizon of expectation.’  The idea can be summed up as follows (though I’m working from memory in a state of moderate-to-severe sleep deprivation):  our space of experience is simply the ‘space’  of what we now know, the staples that presently make up our experience. Our horizon of expectation refers to how far we can map our present space of experience into the future. The example I always like to give is that of a medieval yeoman chewing his callouses in some German field. Not only can he assume that his son will by and large share his experience, but that his grandson will, and his great-grandson, and so on. His space of experience, thanks to social immobility and a creeping rate of technological change, possessed an almost preposterously deep horizon of expectation.

Given this simple conceptual cartoon, we can understand ‘modernization’ or ‘progress’ as the accelerating retreat of our horizons of expectation. We can’t even reliably predict what our own lives will look like in twenty years time, let alone the ‘experiential space’ our children will some day inhabit. This gives us a way (and nothing more) to understand, for instance, the obsolescence of aging, the reason why the respect once accorded to the elderly seems to have all but evaporated in contemporary consumer society: their experiences no longer apply the way they once did.

Expressed in these terms, the ‘singularity’ is simply the point where the accumulation of technologically mediated knock-on effects renders the future almost entirely opaque, and our horizon of expectation, our ability to extrapolate our experiences, collapses altogether.

Given that the process has been accelerating over centuries, there’s no reason to assume that the trend will not continue. Given that we humans have fixed tolerances for social and environmental change, there’s good reason to assume that at some point technologically mediated social change will accelerate beyond our ability to cope, individually and collectively. (Just to give an example, one of the things I fret about with my daughter is that some experts predict that teenagers in her cohort will be abusing some forty-plus recreational drugs (compared to the four that almost did me in!) thanks to the pharmacological revolution). 

I’ve seen all kinds of ‘anti-acceleration arguments,’ none of which I find remotely convincing, let alone powerful enough to defease the pessemistic induction above. Most of them seem to turn on some kind of humanistic exceptionalism: so for instance, some think the sheer complexity of the brain will render it a black box in perpetuity – that it is incomprehensible in principle – and that this comprises some kind of brake that will pull us up short of the brink. Maybe the brain will resist the brain’s attempt to comprehend it in its entirety, maybe not. Maybe we’ll need machines to do this for us (or to us). Either way, comprehensive understanding has nothing to do with our ever-increasing ability to intervene and instrumentalize the brain’s functions piece-meal, therapeutically or otherwise.  Look at the technologies in Neuropath. Or better yet, think of the present technologies of cochlear or deep-brain implants as versions of Edison’s first recorder, then try to imagine the Blueray versions of those (and many other) technologies in a hundred years time. Some seem to think that humanity will realize what’s happening, then band together to legislate some kind of brake on those particularly menacing technologies. But again, history and markets argue otherwise. Short of any obvious and immediate deleterious effect, markets generally seize upon and exploit any innovation that provides some competitive advantage. At what point do we realize that neurocosmetic surgery is driving us insane?

As for the transhumanistic optimism that some espouse, I can’t help but think this is simply wishful thinking. Social change typically generates conflict, plain and simple, and we’re talking about change on a literally unimaginable scale. Our toys become ever more powerful, while our conceit and delusion remain more or less constant. The question, it seems to me, is simply one of how many bullets are we capable of dodging.

The answer to this strikes me as obvious: only so many.

Venture Adventure

by rsbakker

Definition of the Day – Venture Capitalist: Someone who leases power to command invention and intellect.

Watched Freakonomics last night. Almost painfully weak. Apparently societies are too complicated for successful government intervention, but human behaviour all comes down to ‘incentives.’ What begins as an interesting foray into the utility of data mining turns into an embarrassingly weak bid to confirm a discredited ideology. Incentives are merely a fraction of the human picture.

Regarding some of your comments on my last post: the age of technological stasis–or even gradualism–is behind us, I’m afraid. Certain technologies (with profound social repercussions) will encounter technical, resource contingent barriers, certainly, but not at the same time. Meanwhile, our ability to circumvent predicted ceilings in surprising ways will continue to surprise us. So, while we may have reached the limits of traditional semiconductor based information processing, a whole bevy of options have suddenly popped into existence. Silicon stacking. Graphene. Nanowiring. Bioprocessing. Moore’s Law may be dead as a metric, but it will likely hold as a principle.

Then there’s the issue of applications, many, if not most, of which don’t become apparent until after a field of research has reached economic maturity.

This is related to the issue of universality: the fact that so many of our innovations lack ‘microwavishness,’ which is to say, they refuse to find a functional niche and just stay there, like a good microwave.

Then there’s innumerable consequences that will follow upon our reverse engineering of biology: our social relationships are so dependent upon our shared and hitherto largely immutable physiology, that rendering this one particular domain transparent to human instrumentalization literally constitutes a pandora’s box of possibility.

Then there’s nanotech. Yeesh.

One way, for instance, to understand the collapse of the Soviet Union, is in terms of the efflorescence of occupations. The trend in market economies is one of spontaneous, inexorable vocational complication. My wife, when she used to be a job counsellor for foreign professionals, often complained about the way the list of professional occupations just kept growing and growing and growing. Could you imagine a central planner thumbing through those lists trying to force feed all those occupations into their economy? The more technically complicated a society becomes, the more technically complicated a society becomes. Innovation becomes ever more distributed, difficult to predict and to control.

And to think that over half the human race is just climbing aboard the higher education, research train.

Everything is a ‘knock-on effect’ as it is, but as innovations proliferate and the knock-on effects branch and branch and branch, the continuity of the status quo becomes ever more unstable, to the point where predictability collapses altogether–this a rough and ready way to understand the ‘singularity.’

Buckle up. And fret for your children.