Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: March, 2011

Like School in July…

by rsbakker

No class.

Thanks, everyone, for the kind words. Here’s hoping the book repays your enthusiasm!

And Richard, a deep bow from the waist to you. I’m glad the operation went well. People like you are the reason I refuse to slam the door on optimism! GWS, my friend.

The information for the creative writing class I’m teaching just went online. For those of you interested and within striking distance of Little London, the information is here.

A Top Ten Something

by rsbakker

So The White-Luck Warrior is on the shelves and shipping in Canada.  I checked out Amazon’s fantasy bestseller list and I gotta say it was nice to see the Beast tucked in there with Rothfuss, Martin, and Erikson. It won’t be there for long, I’m sure, but still… And over time, who knows?

It’s nice to be a top ten something, even if just for a few days.

My own contract copies arrived yesterday, and I had a chance to play the ‘Cringe Game,’ where I open random pages here and there and begin reading.  Not a single cringe! I’ve realized that my cringing has actually diminished on a curve with each new book I put out. I want to say this is because I’m a better writer than I was, but I have this nagging feeling that it has as much to do with an unconscious unwillingness to acknowledge post-publication problems.

This is also the time of year when I begin my daily Googling ritual, looking for reviews. Nada so far, but I did have occasion to slam head on into my rejection aversion hardwiring. I’m not sure what it is, but I periodically encounter people who really seem to need to take the piss out of my books on the web. I’m not talking about people simply disliking the books – something which I actually find interesting – but individuals who, for whatever reason, decide that I’m nothing more than a sophmoric hack. The prose is ‘clumsy.’ The philosophy is ‘cliche’ or ‘intro.’ These kinds of assertions really make me bristle for some reason – probably because my writing style and my thematics are cornerstones of my professional pride. In this last instance, I actually found myself entertaining a revenge fantasy where I corner the individual at a convention and to have them explain what my philosophical goals are and what makes them so derivative and trite. I wait for them to mention Borges or Carter or Harrison and then I pounce. Imagining these kinds of scenarios always leave me feeling foolish afterward, even though I realize they are simply another irresistible reflex.

I’ve also caught myself marvelling at just how many books I now have out. I still feel like a new author, green as green, and yet I’m anything but. Light, Time, and Gravity brings the count up to eight–eight frickin novels, man. Who would have thunk it.

And this is just a partial snapshot. There’s the apprehensions over what you all will think. The hopes for the building popularity of the series as a whole. The joy of showing my daughter the book, and watching her frown, then turn the book upside down to right the Circumfix on the cover. And so much more.

Having a book released is a complicated time. A mire when things don’t go well, and almost symphonic when they do.

Drinking Crow

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: To assume knowledge is to avoid it.

Pooched from drinking last night, but I thought I should post on just how wrong I was regarding the panel I mentioned yesterday. What I had thought was supposed to be a panel selling the virtues of the humanities to career wary undergrads, was actually a panel discussing the kinds of informal career opportunities that are possible for humanities grads. ‘Critical thinking’ wasn’t even mentioned. And my own peculiar brand of cynicism was definitely not what the doctor ordered. The audience actually consisted of a bunch of worried kids. Believe it or not, I found myself spouting a number of feel good homilies – as best as I could manage. “Confusion does not equal doom!” is one that I remember.

Now I find myself troubled by my glib prognostication: not that it was wrong, simply because these things often do turn out the way I expect, but because of the arrogance it implied, and the unconscious strategy that seemed to motivate it. In retrospect, the cognitive habit seems ironclad simply for being so effortless: the habit of caricaturing those you resent and pretend to feel superior to.

Watching Transcendent Man reminded me of one of the things that motivated my development of Kellhus way back when. What I wanted to show was the way comparative differences in intellectual ability completely transform and distort the relationships between individuals. More specifically, the way freedom seems to be a function of ignorance. The idea was to use Kellhus as a cipher for artificial intelligence, to show how humanity could very well be in the process of devising their own enslavement. (I’m pretty sure I was reading Metamagical Themas at the time).

We all experience this “Volition Framing Effect” all the time when we observe our friends repeating patterns of behaviour they are utterly oblivious to. They think they’re unconstrained, the undisputed master of the their acts, while we know full well that they’re cycling through some kind of neurotic program. One of the signature differences between the first and third persons is the way the former reinforces the very sense of freedom that the latter seems to erode or problematize. What I’m suggesting here, and what I try to demonstrate via Kellhus in my fantasy series, is the way this  ‘erosion of volition’ turns on the intelligence of the observer. This is why the ‘worldborn’  in the Three Seas seem like children to Kellhus: from his vantage, they are continually ‘acting out.’

The kind of bias I was exhibiting yesterday, I think, turns on an exagerration of this effect, a kind of ‘Framing Bias,’ where what you do, quite simply, is make meat-puppets out of potential out-group competitors, see them as simply acting out some implausibly simplistic ideology or the like. This strikes me as yet one more way in which the presumption short-circuits the possibility of knowing.

And leads to the kind of self-serving error I committed yesterday.

School of Mock

by rsbakker

Definition of the Day – Critical thinking: the intellectual version of Christian humility. The ability to simultaneously believe you are open-minded and pretty much right about everything you already believe.

So, The White-Luck Warrior is about to come out, and I find myself pondering the reactions. As always, there’s a thousand things I wish I could go back and change: my great retirement fantasy is to go back and rewrite all my books a la Henry James. But my primary feeling, believe it or not, is hope. The White-Luck Warrior is where the iceberg rolls over, and the monumental stakes of The Second Apocalypse become clear–even if only for a flashing instant. Things are getting epic

As usual with my fantasies, Publishers Weekly has given it a qualified thumbs up. I keep hoping that they will come to appreciate what I think is the scale and the originality of the series, but alas, no.

It looks like Light, Time, and Gravity will be out with Insomniac Press this fall. I still don’t know what to think of thing. Meta-wankery. Reading The Wraparound Universe gave me some nifty ways to analogize the fictional philosophy in the book. Feels tighter.

I watched Transcendent Man the other night, and I have to say, found myself mightily impressed. What I thought was going to be a slavish tribute to Ray Kurzweil turned out to be a poignant and incredibly subtle character study–refracted through the abstract lense of the singularity debate no less. It’s as much a documentary about fear and hope–and the way they collapse into each other–as it is about anything else. Kurzweil’s terror of death leads him to embrace the singularity, which is but another form of death. Contradictions and ironies abound. Fascinating stuff.

I’ll be on a panel at the University of Western Ontario late this afternoon, discussing the ways my ‘humanities education’ facilitated my success. I’ll grit my teeth while others natter about their amazing critical thinking skills. Then I suppose I’ll talk about how the only way to succeed in a bullshit culture is to be a highly skilled bullshitter.

I’ll do my best to be polite, but there’s really no delicate way to dump in the salad. Given all the people I’ve offended, I’m beginning to think I need to change my strategy. Maybe I’ll try to call attention to just how preposterous my claims sound, to the way they trigger some automatic instinct to dismiss. Then say something trite and Andy Warholesque: like, ‘you’re only a critical thinker the degree to which you realize you are not a critical thinker.’

Something like that.

Then I’ll go home and get drunk with my buddies.

Grace Comes and Goes

by rsbakker

We stayed in Detroit the night of the tenth because our flight to Mexico left so early the morning of the eleventh.  I turned on CNN at about 3AM.

Oboy.

We shared a beachfront villa on the Yucatan with some friends from New Hampshire. Every morning our daughter would wake up, stare at the dawn-burnished sea climbing the windows and cry out, Wooooooooo!

Beers in the sun. Babies laughing and squealing in the sand. Crazy good Mexican food. Adventures on narrow dirt roads. All-encompassing torrents of water and landfill. Smoking reactors. Nightvision explosions.

Death on the television.

Life and tanned children.

Gratitude.

White-Luck Teaser

by rsbakker

Just a quick note to direct those interested to a teaser from The White-Luck Warrior that Pat has posted over at The Hotlist. You can find it here

Just a few weeks now.

Stuffing Literature to the Brim

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Focus does not so much illuminate the foreground as suppress the background. Clarification requires obfuscation.

I don’t believe that genres are anything more than family resemblances, clusters of commonality that may or may not possess genetic links. There’s nothing essential about genres, though the invisibility of ignorance and the apparent clarity of certain resemblances may make it seem so. I look at genre as fields of interpretative possibility capable of anchoring any number of theoretical caricatures. The kinds of understanding we take out of them depends on the kinds of understanding we put in. I use an ‘inside-out soul’ approach, one which combines cognitive science with quackery all my own.

These last couple of weeks have got me thinking about the stuff of literature, the content. Consider the four following categories:

Wish-fulfilment characterization. The tendency of readers and writers to identify with characters who conform to their own skewed sense of self.

Wish-fulfilment morality. The tendency of readers and writers to identify with stories that confirm their own moral intuitions.

Wish-fulfilment metaphysics. The tendency of readers and writers to identify with intentional (psychological) worlds.

Wish-fulfilment exterior action. The tendency of readers and writers to identify with hyperbolic ‘redemptive’ narratives.

As a product of the Enlightenment, modern literary culture finds its roots in a generalized antipathy to tradition. Since tradition is heavily invested in instinct, all four of these categories are salient in traditional literature. Somehow, in someway, varying degrees of resistance to and defection from these categories became the measure of ‘literary content.’ Psychological realism became the norm for characterization. The disenchanted world became the norm for metaphysics. The quotidian became the norm for exterior action. The only category to escape–and I imagine this is no coincidence–is morality. Here, for obvious reasons, the defection could only be half-hearted (making moral confusion as opposed to moral clarity the norm, but clinging to ‘stories with morals’ none the less).

(Given this interpretation, you could say that magic realism counts as a revolutionary departure, insofar as it allows these exiled content categories back into ‘literature.’ The problem, however, is simply that the cage had become so small: it had to adapt itself to the exacting sensibilities of those within to be taken ‘seriously.’ So what you find are rarefied as opposed to popular forms of these categories, instances of ‘wish-fulfilment’ constrained by the expectations of academically trained audiences (who, of course, reliably fail to see their training as anything other than enabling).)

The problem, as should be apparent, is that you lose ‘baseline readers’ (those without any specialized training beyond their socialization into a given culture) the degree to which you defect from these categories. Given that we are living in a culture that is actively generating content to appease these ‘wishes,’ the contemporary writer can no longer rely on any ‘only-game-in-town effect.’ We are dismissed as quickly as we are identified. Given the rapid technologically mediated transformation of our society the contemporary writer has no recourse to posterity either, which is why every writer living is a post-posterity writer. We are dismissed forever.

The trap might be described like this: at one time literary culture could defect from these content categories and still reach dissenting audiences simply because of its social prominence, but with its institutional prestige dwindling, and with markets becoming ever more specialized, what once counted as literature by virtue of its effects, came to count as literature by virtue of its resemblances. Literature became ‘just another genre,’ a largely dedicated form with a largely dedicated audience.

Some, like Franzen, acknowledge this, and are only too happy to write for the likeminded–the writer’s ‘friends,’ as he calls them. Others, like Docx, continue to cling to the illusion of the Ideal Philistine. Everyone (or so it seems to me when I root around literary blogs and interviews) has a sense that something has gone wrong. But since they have spent their lives pursuing in-group prestige under the auspices of ‘cultural reform,’ they seem too invested to ask the hard questions. The tendency is predictably self-aggrandizing: responsibility is assigned to various anonymous forces that they can then pretend to ‘resist.’ They transform the pop cultural rejection of their work into a kind of credential.

What makes Epic Fantasy so fascinating, so culturally significant, and, yes, so pregnant with literary potential is the way it out and out violates all the norms of literary content–the way it’s self-consciously premodern. It provides wish-fulfilment characters, morals, settings, as well as action. And–most importantly–it’s immensely popular among baseline readers. Small wonder so many literati consider it the very antithesis of the ‘literary.’

And yet, in a very real way, it is the genre that best exemplifies who we are. Why? Because it maps the worlds that complement our souls (rather than mapping, ad nauseam, worlds that deny our souls). It says who we are in a way that ‘modern literature’ simply is not capable, given its prohibitions on content. And it says it, most importantly, to heterogenous audiences.

Why in the world would anyone want to abandon such a vehicle to the apologists? What kind of healthy literary culture could do such a thing?

I’m guessing the recent blog broadsides Theo and I exchanged left many of you scratching your heads. (Having read through the comments on his blog, I genuinely applaud those of you intrepid enough to engage his readers, given all the strawman misconstruals, ad hominem attacks, and summary dismissals you suffered!) But the most extraordinary fact is that Theo and I debated at all. This, I would argue, is where literary culture needs to be. Cheek to cheek with the community that houses, feeds, and clothes it. Wrestling real words with real people who genuinely disagree.

Epic fantasy made this possible. The lowest of the low-brow.

In other words, the cultural short-circuit is so profound that the kinds of debates literature should be provoking can only be found in places it would never go. Thus my call for a wholesale reevaluation. Rather than gaming ambiguities to secure an almost farcical sense of false self-importance, the literary culture of the future has to game the social mechanisms of its communicative distribution, something which inevitably turns on the psychology of its reception. And to do this, it has to radically revise the ways it evaluates content (and form as well, but that’s a different post). It has to see that as soon as it begins sorting the stuff of fiction into the serious and the silly, it has begun the insidious process of sorting readers. That it has succumbed to the all to human tendency to seek confirmation and affirmation from those who already agree.

Literature needs to become something that haunts and nags the whole of fiction, the whole of culture, as opposed to something that fits in a tidy little Bocx.

To Whit…

by rsbakker

Definition of the Day – Logic: something only you possess in full, and lacking in others the degree to which they disagree with you. See, Force, the.

Noticed another Voxday blip on the counter so I thought I would check it out. Found a treasure trove of tidbits referring to ‘us’ like this:

They’re morally confused individuals who suffer from either insufficient intelligence or a surfeit of modern secularist dogma which renders them unable accept the conclusions that logic forces them to confront. So, like overmatched mid-wits usually do, they attempt to move the goalposts, desperately attempt to avoid admitting that they’ve been shown to be incorrect, and launch bitchy little passive-aggressive assaults in an attempt to maintain their self-image as rational and intelligent individuals.

But of course. This is exactlywhat we are–as is every other human being in the planet, including Theo and his readers. It’s the presumption otherwise that makes us laughable, and at times, even dangerous. Thus the Three Pound Brain.

Theo, I know you’re reading this: I’m sure you wouldn’t argue the studies that show how the vast majority of individuals assume they are more moral and more intelligent than their peers. So, given that everyone assumes they’re largely in the right and that the other guys are largely in the wrong, all things being equal, the chances of any individual actually being right on a given issue depends on the number of  possible competing interpretations of that issue. In other words, all things being equal, the odds of any individual being ‘largely in the right’ are actually quite small. So my question to you is simply: What makes you the exception?

Most everyone I ask (I’ve made a hobby of plaguing liberal academics with this question) cites education, disposition, or revelation either individually or in some combination. They’ve either read more, or read more strategically, or been blessed by some happy mutation, or have had some direct experience with divinity. Since there’s no way to arbitrate any of these things (Whose reading list? What kind of IQ? Whose deity?) they tend to sound like forms of ‘special pleading,’ like people simply crying “But I’m the exception for real!”

But what if you’re not the exception, Theo? What if you’re just another dupe like me?

The only solution that I’ve been able to come up with is the one first posed by the ancient skeptics more than two millennia ago: doubt, doubt, and more doubt. Which is the harder road, and certainly the one less travelled. Certainty, we are beginning to learn, is a kind native reflex (which is why all humans suffer it to varying degrees), something that attaches itself to our claims independently of reason or empirical evidence. The only recourse, it seems to me, is to resist the reflex and admit that we’re just guessing.

(Relativists, you could say, try to make a metaphysical virtue out this situation, confusing our collective inability to decisively arbitrate between truth-claims with the nature of truth itself).

Otherwise, what do you make of things like the 1999 Dunning and Kruger study that draws a strong correlation between logical incompetence and the tendency to overestimate logical competence in self-assessments, as well as vice versa? The highest performers, in other words, consistently underestimate their performance. There’s this great graph charting the relationship that I always wanted to have made into T-shirts, where the steep rising line charting actual performance is plotted against the almost horizontal line charting the performer’s self-assessments.

Generalizing, you might say the less intelligent you are in fact, the more intelligent you are often prone to feel, and the more intelligent you are in fact, the more stupid you are often prone to feel.

I’m not making this stuff up, Theo. Cognitive psychology has been picking away at our self-congratulatory sense of intelligence and rectitude for decades now. Cognitive neuroscience is beginning to discover some downright creepy possibilities. For starters, check out this wonderful little website

Then tell us all how you happen to be the only human being on the planet who doesn’t suffer from confirmation bias, my-side bias, hindsight bias, familiarity bias, and so on and so on. The Grand Prize Winner of the Magical Belief Lottery.

To Doom or not to Doom, that is the Head-scratcher

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Nostalgia is what happens when we remember the ‘happens’ minus the ‘shit.’

Just a couple of responses to several queries made over the course of the past several days. I have no definite info on the writing class I’ll be teaching this summer. I have no clue how or why the release dates for my books get shuffled around. And I rarely allow myself more than an hour or two to put these posts together. They are pretty much as ad hoc as can be – which is just to say that they fly straight out of my ass!

I’ve been meaning to post about nostalgia and the importance of fantasy for a few days now, but my thoughts have been hijacked by the related notion of ‘societal decline’ for some reason, particularly by what struck me as uncomfortable parallels I felt lurking between my thought and Theo’s.

I’ve never encountered any research on the subject (links would be welcome) but the tendency to idealize the past almost seems an axiom of human nature. As is the tendency to think things are going to shit. What ever happened to the good old days?

Let’s be honest. We are in the midst of the most remarkable efflorescence of human achievement in the history of the human race. No period in any human civilization has enjoyed the health, prosperity, and sheer cultural productivity that we are presently enjoying now.

Resource pessimists will tell you that we’ve exhausted this or that critical resource, but the fact is, the technological optimists have pretty much carried the day in the history of these debates. Consider ‘peak oil,’ the thesis that our dog-sprinting economies are about to reach the limit of their fossil fuel leash. Although this might be true for easily accessible forms of oil, there’s enough oil locked in tar sand and shale deposits to last decades, if not longer. And the current prices are already high enough to make extraction economical. It’s scaling up as we speak.

Environmental alarmists will tell you that the climate and biosphere are unravelling beneath our feet. But their predictions are only dire in the long term, and the technological optimists once again have powerful arguments to make.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m about as big a ‘doomer’ as they come. I’m not a resource pessimist simply because of research I did exploring my brother’s worries about peak oil. I do think we are in the midst of an environmental crisis–we are literally living through one of the biggest extinction events to hit the planet–but the technological optimist’s position is a genuinely powerful one, and I never feel comfortable committing to a guess unless I’ve given the Devil his due due. I also think that the masses who do all the work are being progressively and systematically duped and cheated by the few who enjoy and command their labour–in North America, at least.

But what I’m really afraid of is the growing disproportion between our collective self-understanding and the dizzying power of our toys, weapons, and tools. A man, as the saying goes, has got to know his limitations, and here we are, living and participating in a culture that continually trumpets our ‘limitless potential.’ A triumphalist culture.

I no longer give a flying fuck about the canonical ‘radical’ concerns of left wing academia. I see ‘problems’ like the ‘metaphysics of presence’ or ‘identity thinking’ as hothouse conceptualizations of specific cognitive tendencies that are much better understood in psychological terms, and much better tackled in the arena of popular culture and public education. So where someone like Adorno, for instance, goes on and on about art and the non-identical, I would rather talk about teaching elementary students about the invisibility of ignorance, and how it skews their conceptions of the world. Where Derrida plays with notions of text and differance, I would rather talk about interpretative literacy, and how the humanities need to take responsibility for, rather than simply bemoan, the fact that the majority of their fellow citizens believe in univocal interpretation.

Once you realize that so many of the debates in scholarly circles serve no determinate function, it becomes hard not to see it all as largely the product of in-group status seeking–as a colossal waste of critical resources that our society desperately needs. (Identity and equity politics are important, as are ‘prosperity politics,’ but I see these as skirmishes within the battlefield of liberal democracy.)

So I don’t think we’re entering anything that could be plausibly described as ‘societal decline.’ I also don’t think there’s any kind of historical precedent for what’s happening to us. Analogies to Late Imperial Rome strike me as preposterous. No human being ever has lived in times remotely like these. Pre-Renaissance Europe has far, far more in common with the failing Roman Empire than does the Post-Industrial West.

Here’s a cartoon: Imagine that human society is a peculiar kind of race car, an organic one whose engine is growing in power more quickly than its frame and chassis. Some kind of break up is inevitable. Since the engine (science and capital) seems impossible to throttle back, I’m concentrating on augmenting the frame and chassis (ideology and appearance). Since I’m far more creative than organized, I’m throwing my peculiar bacterial strain into the petri dish of popular cultural, rather than taking any activist, administrative reform route.

The problem is accelerating, unchecked ascent, not decline. It’s the growing mismatch between our collective power and collective wisdom. And this is what makes nostalgia and declinism seem so dangerous to me, not simply the stick-man version Theo and his crew suffer, but in the more sophisticated forms you find in literary culture as well. The notion that what once was literary is literary still, despite the drastic changes in our techno-social circumstances. The notion that naive, pre-cognitive revolution assumptions about human nature provide an adequate basis for cultural critique and speculation. (What could be more nostalgic than semiotics?)

Nostalgia is the instinct, the intuition, that we must keep the frame the same to see our way through, or even worse, dial it back to some previous incarnation. The engine, meanwhile, keeps winding higher and higher.